Nova Scotia

Why these domestic violence shelters in N.S. want your old cellphone

Deactivated or outdated cellphones can be an essential tool to help women escape from domestic violence situations, say organizations that work with women and children in Nova Scotia.

Advocates say even an outdated phone can serve as a lifeline to someone escaping abuse, starting a new life

A functioning cellphone, even an older model, can help people escape from domestic violence situations, say advocates. (CBC)

Unused or outdated cellphones are gathering dust in Canadian households, but as long as they can still hold a charge and call 911, advocates for women and children fleeing domestic violence in Nova Scotia say they can be a useful resource in a desperate situation.

Jodi McDavid, executive director at Cape Breton Transition House, said people are often surprised to hear her association is looking for older model cellphones. But she said even flip phones can dial emergency services or act as a backup for women who are seeking help from the transition house in Sydney.

"Especially if somebody is trying to control them," McDavid said. "One of the first things that's done is that their phone is taken away from them or destroyed or smashed."

A cellphone that is not subscribed to a service plan can still call 911 providing it's charged.

McDavid said sourcing old cellphones is a constant challenge. The majority of contributions come from the general public.

She estimates her association — which offers support and shelter to women and children who are emotionally, physically, or sexually abused — gets about five phones each month, but it could use more. 

Ann de Ste Croix, provincial co-ordinator for the Transition House Association of Nova Scotia, said having access to a phone to call emergency services or a transition house is an important aspect of safety planning — a process that involves mapping out steps to take action or flee.

"I know a lot of people are eager to upgrade [their phones], but instead of throwing them out or even recycling them, they do have uses beyond that," said de Ste Croix.

She said an extra phone can provide a "real sense of safety and security" for someone whose partner is controlling or monitoring their cellphone use.

Advocates say isolation is a common tactic used by abusive partners. 

"Having another cellphone that their partner isn't aware of can be the difference between being able to access help and not being able to access help," said de Ste Croix.

'A small way that people can help'

Ginger McPhee is executive director of Chrysalis House in Kentville, N.S., an organization that provides shelter and support for abused women and their children. 

She said donated phones can be a lifeline for women as they try to schedule appointments, find employment, or secure housing.

"It's a small way that people can help easily," McPhee said. 

One 2018 study for the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association found that 66 per cent of Canadians have cellphones in their possession that they are not using.

"To a woman who has come to a shelter and doesn't have anything, to be given a phone and know that she has some access and some support and a way to reach out to people, it's just such an instant relief," McPhee said. 

"The phone really symbolizes a lot of things. It's not just the safety — it's the independence and planning for the future," McDavid said. 

Those looking to donate old phones can call their local shelter listed on the Transition House Association of Nova Scotia's website. 

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