How Black-led shelters are battling racism against women seeking refuge from violence

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a spike in domestic violence and more women seeking shelter. But racism can make escaping abuse even more complicated, and that's why Lisa Ogbole says Black-led organizations are important in helping some women get back on their feet.

Lisa Ogbole started Imani’s Place, a transitional home helping women escape abuse

Lisa Ogbole is a survivor of domestic violence now dedicated to helping others escape abuse. (Submitted by Lisa Ogbole)

After eight years in an abusive relationship, Lisa Ogbole says she began to think about ending her life.

"I didn't want to wake up to see another day because first off, I was just in my own world ... if you know anything about abusers, the first thing they do is to cut off all your ties," Ogbole said.

"I was emotionally and physically abused by the one person that was supposed to protect me, and it took away all my self-esteem, my self confidence."

Ogbole says she wasn't aware of any type of support services at the time. Besides, after a while, she thought all women probably went through the same thing. 

One day, someone finally told her what was happening wasn't acceptable. So, after her partner broke her nose, she left. 

"I made a promise to myself to help other women who were in similar situations and didn't know what to do," Ogbole says.

"If I were to take my life at that time, who would be here to help the other women?"

In October 2019, Ogbole opened Imani's Place — a six-bed transitional home in Alliston, Ont., about 104 kilometres northwest of Toronto. It's for victims of violence, human trafficking or any other form of abuse. Imani means faith in Swahili, something Ogbole says these women must have in themselves to begin to heal.

Ogbole says it's important Imani is led by a Black woman as she's found women of colour can face added barriers of racism and discrimination when seeking help.

Imani's Place is a six-bed home in Alliston, Ont. Clients have access to essentials like food and clothing, medical assistance and legal support. (Submitted by Lisa Ogbole)

One of her clients, a victim of human trafficking, came to Imani's Place after experiencing anti-Black racism at a shelter, she says.

"She was always at the table by herself eating. Nobody wanted to talk to her. Nobody wanted to do anything with her, and she just felt like she was not welcome," she said.

"Guess what she did? She took her bag and went right back into the sex industry." 

Abi Ajibolade, executive director of the Redwood — a transitional home in Toronto for victims of abuse — says she's also seen racism within the shelter system.

"What we're dealing with is systemic," she says.

"Even for me in my position, I feel really honoured and I check my own privileges as well because I do have a level of power in my role, I face it."

Abi Ajibolade is the executive director of the Redwood, a home providing emotional, social and practical support for those escaping abuse. (Submitted by Abi Ajibolade)

The pandemic is now creating an added burden, both Ogbole and Ajibolade say, resulting in a surge of calls from women facing abuse.

Ogbole says she's seen a 40 per cent increase in calls since the pandemic began and is now fundraising to keep Imani's Place afloat. 

Health and safety protocols mean she's seeing fewer volunteers. She's dug into her own line of credit to continue paying for programs, food and transportation for her clients. 

Still, she's had to turn some away.

"It's something that I care a lot about because I am a survivor myself … We need to let women know that there is help for them."

Domestic violence rates rise amid pandemic

The rise in gender-based violence is happening across the country.

In April, Canada's minister for women and gender equality found several parts of the country were experiencing a 20 to 30 per cent increase in rates of gender-based violence.

Canada's Minister for Women and Gender Equality Maryam Monsef says the COVID-19 crisis has empowered perpetrators of domestic violence. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

At one shelter in the GTA, calls had gone up by 400 per cent. Another report from York Regional Police saw a 22 per cent increase in domestic incidents since stay-at-home measures went into effect March 17.

But Deepa Mattoo, the executive director of the Toronto-based Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic — which provides support to women in need as well as advocating for legal reform — says many women who are Black, Indigenous or other people of colour (BIPOC) probably aren't reporting cases of abuse at all.

"Because of their own personal experiences and experiences of their communities, it creates a mistrust in the system ... and that very system is then supposed to be providing them support and providing them safety," she said.

As a result of systemic racism, she says many in the BIPOC community are "less likely to reach out for help, less likely to report, less likely to be supported, less likely to be helped, less likely to be believed."

While anti-Black racism persists, Ajibolade says solutions need to be found to ensure all people receive the help they need.

The Redwood provides cross-cultural programming to reflect the diversity of clients it serves. 

"I just don't want us to have another five seconds or 10 seconds of silence for a woman who's just been brutally murdered by someone who's supposed to love her," Ajibolade said.

"We have to find ways and look for options and alternatives to keeping women safe."

Ogbole says she wants to expand Imani's Place and allow more women to find comfort in telling their story to someone who can understand their perspective.

She's also pushing for more empowerment. Part of her mandate is to remove 250 women from the welfare system by 2025.

"You can never underestimate the power of a woman."