Long-term funding for domestic violence programs will have lasting impact beyond the pandemic, say experts

COVID-19 has plunged Canada into a state of uncertainty and fear, as people question their ability to pay rent and provide for their families during this crisis. Some vulnerable populations, though, will be forced to live in fear of injury or even death in their own homes.

While physical distancing and self-isolation are necessary to flatten the curve, advocacy groups like the Calgary Domestic Violence Collective say these measures will likely cause significant increases in domestic violence, as well as alter how life-saving services are disseminated to at-risk women and children.

  • In 2017, almost 96,000 people in Canada were victims of intimate partner violence.
  • 75,000, or 79% of those reported victims were women.
  • Statistics Canada estimates that 70% of incidents of intimate partner violence are never reported to the police.
  • In 2017, 45% of all female victims of violence had been victimized by a current or former partner.
  • Women and children were turned away from domestic violence shelters over 19,000 times in November 2019, according to the CBC’s Stopping Domestic Violence series.

With Canada’s emergency shelters already at capacity before the outbreak, immediate action must be taken by the government to house women and to support organizations that work to protect this vulnerable demographic.

Surges in domestic violence

Existing research shows that women and children are at heightened risk of violence in all of its forms during times of economic uncertainty, civil unrest and disaster. Countries that have been hit hard by COVID-19 are already reporting dramatic increases in rates of domestic violence.

China’s Jianli County police station, in the central Hubei Province, received 162 reports of intimate partner violence in February. That is three times the number of reports for the month of February in 2019. A survey of 400 frontline workers in Australia revealed an increase in both client numbers and violence specifically related to COVID-19. These trends are being replicated across the globe, including in Canada, as COVID-19 continues to spread. 

A Vancouver-based domestic violence phone line says there has been a 300% increase in calls over the last three weeks. The Battered Women Support Services crisis line typically gets a few dozen calls a day–now that number is nearing 100.

“In times of crisis and natural disasters, there is a documented rise in domestic abuse. As normal life shuts down, victims—who are usually women—can be exposed to abusers for long periods of time and cut off from social and institutional support,” said Jurgita Pečiūrienė of the European Institute for Gender Equality, in an interview with EURACTIV.

Increased exposure to abusers, decreased freedom and privacy in quarantine conditions, and the breakdown of support services are all results of this international crisis and significantly increase women and children’s risk of experiencing violence.

Different pathways link pandemics to violence against women and children. Some are obvious, like how the upheaval of social and health services reduces both accessibility to resources, and resources themselves, for victims of violence. Some are more insidious, like the financial control that can be exerted by an abuser amid fears of contracting the virus. Things like withholding hand sanitizer, health insurance and economic support are unique forms of abuse that can arise during a pandemic.

In a news interview, Suzanne Jacob, chief executive of British charity SafeLives, referred to the situation as a perfect storm. “Lockdowns will lead to a surge in domestic abuse, but also severely limit the ability of services to help,” she said.

Policy and program reponses 

With so many women and children already trying—and failing—to flee domestic violence, the COVID-19 pandemic will further endanger this vulnerable population and put additional strain on already overcapacity emergency facilities.

The federal government announced $50 million in funding for women’s shelters and sexual assault centres (including those serving Indigenous women and girls) and another $7.5 million in funding for Kids Help Phone. This money will enable women’s shelter organizations to provide safe temporary housing, but with women’s shelters already overflowing, will it be enough?

A working paper published by the Center for Global Development in April recommends increasing long-term funding to emergency shelters providing housing to women and children. These additional funds could be used to expand available shelter, increase staffing at shelters and support crisis response and violence prevention programming. The centre also recommends extra privacy and security measures be in place so women and children are protected when they reach out for help. 

The working paper also stresses the importance of ensuring health care professionals are trained to support and identify vulnerable people at risk of violence, and that they can properly assess their circumstances and whether quarantine is a safe option. Similarly, policy-makers tasked with developing crisis response measures need to understand the unique circumstances of women and children experiencing violence. For example, the paper suggests that economic benefits should be targeted to individuals using automated delivery systems so there are fewer barriers to accessing financial support.

Women’s organizations across the country are already taking action, providing resources for women and children experiencing violence and disseminating best practices and responses to the COVID-19 crisis. Local groups are attempting to identify housing alternatives for those fleeing violence, who face huge challenges because many landlords aren’t accepting new tenants anymore. In Winnipeg, some groups are talking with the federal government about acquiring buildings that could be quickly converted into housing for women.

These and other enhancements to funding, housing and services for survivors of violence during the pandemic will have lasting benefits well after the virus is brought under control.


Natasha Bulowski is apprenticing at the Monitor from Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication where she is completing her bachelor of journalism with a minor in human rights.