Women's advocates fear an uptick in domestic violence from COVID-19

Women’s advocates say they fear a toxic combination of stress, job losses and forced isolation caused by COVID-19 could lead to a rise in domestic violence.

Stress, isolation could make abusive situations worse, advocates say

Women's advocates say they fear the stress and isolation many are experiencing during the COVID-19 pandemic could lead to a rise in domestic violence. (Shutterstock)

Women's advocates say they fear a toxic combination of stress, job losses and isolation caused by COVID-19 could lead to a rise in domestic violence.

"We know that if stressors go up for folks, that does put them at an increased risk," said Jennifer Hutton, executive director of Women's Crisis Services of Waterloo Region.

"If there is domestic violence already pre-existing, then I do worry that that could escalate due to this stress and due to the isolation."

Although the current situation is unprecedented, Western University researcher Barb MacQuarrie said pandemics are similar in some ways to natural disasters, which have been associated with a rise in domestic violence.

She pointed to a 2015 report commissioned by the Red Cross about gender-based violence and natural disasters, which described domestic violence as "a constant theme."

"Whatever security people have in their routines ... gets destabilized. And so the people that are most likely to feel that are the most vulnerable," said MacQuarrie, who is the community director of the Centre for Research and Education on Violence against Women and Children.

Why domestic abuse?

MacQuarrie said a pandemic is unlikely to make someone abuse their partner for the first time. But, it could make an abusive relationship worse. 

External stressors, such as job losses and financial stress, can make people — including abusers — feel as though they've lost control of their lives, she said.

"When you have situations where people feel a lack of control, they're going to turn to those closest to them to try and regain some sense of control," MacQuarrie said.

"If they're used to doing that in an abusive way then there's a chance that the uncertainty and these … stresses that we're all facing are going to cause them to escalate their behaviour."

Barb MacQuarrie, community director of the Centre for Research and Education on Violence Against Women and Children at Western University, says some people may turn to violence to feel a sense of control in their lives. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

For Andrea Gunraj, vice-president of community engagement with the Canadian Women's Foundation, any escalation of domestic violence is worrying, given the high level of domestic violence that Canadian women deal with on a day-to-day basis.

"If that's the baseline that we're working on, I am concerned about increased stressors that happen in people's lives that can just make that violence go up," she said.

Isolation 'an abuser's dream'

Meanwhile, social distancing has the power to make abuse harder to spot, according to Kaitlin Bardswich, who is communications and development manager at Women's Shelters Canada. 

Under normal conditions, she said abusers often deliberately try to keep their victims isolated. Now, that task has become easier than ever. 

"Self-isolation is ... an abuser's dream," said Bardswich.

"Now that you have governments … highly encouraging self-isolation and social distancing, that makes it easier for an abuser to keep their partner from friends, from family, from neighbours, from people who might notice things are happening," she said.

The practices of self-isolation and social distancing can also hamper a woman's attempts to get help, she said. A victim who can count on her partner leaving for work once a day can also expect a reprieve and a chance to reach out for help, she said.

"Now that could be very difficult as well," Bardswich said.

Help still out there

For people experiencing abuse, advocates are clear that help is still available.

Shelters for women and children fleeing violence are on the province's list of essential services. The Kitchener and Cambridge shelters run by Women's Crisis Services of Waterloo Region are up and running, and have started using new sanitization measures, Hutton said.

Help is also available over the phone, and information is online for those who can't make a private phone call.

"I don't want anybody to feel like they're alone," Hutton said.

Jennifer Hutton is executive director of Women's Crisis Services of Waterloo Region. She says her shelters are open and help is still available for those who need it during the pandemic. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

Meanwhile, family, friends and neighbours have a responsibility to check in with anybody they may be concerned about, whether it's over the phone, email or through text messages, MacQuarrie said.

Friends and family can also call shelter helplines for information about how to approach a conversation with someone who may be being abused, said Bardswich.   

"You don't want to make a situation worse … because her abuser most likely has access to the phone or is listening beside her," said said, adding that asking more generic questions about how someone is coping with isolation is a better approach.

In an emergency, call police or 9-1-1, she said.

Going forward, Gunraj said she hopes the pandemic will help remind people how important it is to take care of one another.

"The one positive thing that I can say about this situation is that we're understanding that we are kind of sharing a reality here and everything that we do does affect others," she said.

"I hope that … we'll see how important it is for us to think proactively and preventatively with things, even like gender-based violence, which does feel so big and overwhelming."

If you need help and are in immediate danger, call 911. To find assistance in your area click here.