Pandemic means abused women more isolated but supports still available, advocates say

Advocates say the COVID-19 pandemic may make it more difficult for women abused by their partners to access support but that support is still available.

Advocates speak out on International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women

Mirlo Liendo, a youth counsellor in Toronto, lived with an abusive man for 18 years before leaving him eight years ago. Now, she uses what she has learned to help others. The pandemic has made it harder for abused women to access services but those services are still there, she says. (Talia Ricci/CBC)

Advocates say the COVID-19 pandemic has made it more difficult for women abused by their partners to access support but that support is still available.

Speaking on Wednesday, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, advocates said provincial restrictions, combined with the closure of public places, mean women are more isolated with their abusers than they were before. There has also been less privacy at home to make calls about the abuse, they said.

But they said community services are still in operation.

"Now, going into the second lockdown, I think it's really important that women know that you can leave now. You can leave during the pandemic. You can be safe," said Mirlo Liendo, a youth counsellor in Toronto.

"Shelters can still house and home people. You can still access services," she said.

"Community care is so important when it comes to connecting with the women in our lives."

Liendo said in March, many women were under the impression that there was no help and they stopped looking. But the city and women's shelters have figured out how to provide services.

"Under the best of times, it's an extremely difficult transition. Considering things now are a little bit different, it's still doable and different and these difficult transitions are always much better than still living in an abusive home."

Liendo, who lived with her abuser for 18 years but left him eight years ago, said the pandemic has created more stress, particularly now that Toronto is back in lockdown.

"Women have been so isolated and abusers are functioning with a different level of stress so it can make things much more unsafe," Liendo said.

Abuse often disguised as love, survivor says

But Liendo said there is hope. She herself has a new life now.

"We all have this image of what an abused woman looks like and that wasn't me. We had the best of everything. We're educated. We got these fantastic children. We went to church every Sunday. We had a nice house. We lived in a nice neighbourhood. We were both professionals," she said.

After she left, Liendo said she replayed events in her mind, something that is very common among domestic abuse survivors. Now, she uses what she has learned to help others determine what is healthy and not healthy. Understanding how abuse starts and happens is important, she added.

"It's often disguised as love and attention and affection and a lot of things that media tells young people are forms of love or ways of showing love to other people, when they are actually the very beginning of pieces of abuse."

WATCH | CBC's Talia Ricci talks to advocates about domestic violence during the pandemic:

Advocates say domestic violence on rise during pandemic

3 years ago
Duration 2:22
Featured VideoWednesday marks International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. CBC's Talia Ricci talks to advocates for women about gender-based violence. The pandemic has made accessing supports more difficult, they say.

Organizations that provide support to abused women, meanwhile, say calls from women about gender-based violence have risen since the pandemic began.

Calls to Assaulted Women's Helpline have risen

The Assaulted Women's Helpline, which provides free, confidential and anonymous counselling for abused women in Ontario, says the number of calls to its helpline was double the usual number in the early months of the pandemic.

Yvonne Harding, manager of resource development for the helpline, said it normally receives about 4,000 calls a month, but it reached a plateau of about 8,000 monthly calls after the pandemic began.

Annually, it receives 55,000 calls a year, half in the Greater Toronto Area and half in the rest of Ontario. From March to September, the hotline had already answered more than 55,000 calls.

That number has dropped recently but it's still higher than normal and is still about 6,500 to 7,000 calls a month. Harding said women have had difficulty coping and there has been pressure on existing resources that provide support.

"Women were calling us incredibly stressed, incredibly panicked," she said.

"They're now under roof with their abuser and finding windows of opportunity to call us and taking whatever window was available, whether that meant going into the bathroom, going into a closet, taking advantage of someone taking the garbage out or running an errand," she added.

"They were calling us with really limited opportunity to talk so it really changed the nature of how our counsellors had to work as well." 

Lockdown a 'pressure cooker that doesn't have a valve'

Women's shelters say they have been struggling to meet the greater need.

Nellie's in Toronto, for example, is now operating at about 50 per cent capacity and at two sites — its shelter and a hotel — according to executive director Jyoti Singh. It was identified as a shelter that didn't have enough space before the pandemic. At one point, it had 36 women in 10 rooms.

"When the lockdown comes down, we get fewer calls," she said. "Women are more scared to leave their abuser. They're at more risk. It's like a pressure cooker that doesn't have a valve."

When lockdown restrictions ease, she said the shelter tends to get more calls for help.

"Our concern right now, as we go into a more deeper lockdown again, is what is going to happen to those women who are not able to reach out and what kind of a situation are they in."

With files from Talia Ricci