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“Staying Home” is Not the Safest for Everyone: Domestic Violence and COVID-19

Stay home
July 28, 2020

Bianca Braganza is a 2020 Social Connectedness Fellow working with the City of Toronto to examine how mental health resources and models from the Jane-Finch community can be replicated and sustained. Bianca is passionate about children and youth access to education and justice, as well as the intersection of health, economic development, community building and the law.

“For many women and girls, the threat looms largest where they should be safest: in their own homes”

António Guterres

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, the first measure put in place globally was social isolation – individuals were instructed immediately to stay at home. Yet home was, and is not the safest place for everyone.

While experts advised and governments implemented confinement measures to stop the spread of the disease, both parties largely overlooked the disastrous consequence that isolation was having on the prevalence of domestic violence on a global scale. Times of economic uncertainty, civil unrest and disaster are linked to risk factors for increased violence against women and children. The culmination of economic and social stress created by the pandemic in addition to restrictions on mobility, such as stay at home measures, have dramatically increased the abuse and violence faced by girls and women in almost all countries around the world. In pre COVID-19 times, a third of women around the world had experienced some form of violence in their lives. Now, in Canada there has been an increase by 20 to 30 percent in rates of domestic violence in some regions of the country; in a shelter in the Greater Toronto Area for example, calls for help have gone up by 400 percent.  

Current numbers and statistics are not wholly reflective of the prevalence of domestic violence, as isolation has led to an increased monitoring of survivor activities and behavior, whereby perpetrators of violence are better able to observe and restrict calls for help as they are at home as well – making it difficult to seek out help. 

There has been a lack of an intersectional approach to COVID-19, from pandemic planning, to outbreak response and post-pandemic recovery. An intersectional approach would have taken into consideration the pre-existing vulnerability faced by high risk populations that would be exacerbated by certain pandemic measures – specially, survivors of domestic violence. Those who are the most vulnerable to violence are those who lack the access to support networks, including Indigenous women, racialized women, newcomer women, trans women, and women living with disabilities. Yet it would seem these communities have been ignored.  

Stay at home measures have emphasized the fundamental importance of crisis services, shelters and transition homes. Many of Canada’s emergency shelters were already at capacity before the outbreak; as such, the decision of the Canadian government to pledge 50$ million to assist with the management and prevention of outbreaks in women’s shelters and sexual assault centers did not nearly do enough to address the increased need for safe havens during the pandemic. 

COVID-19 has also shone a light on pre-existing gaps in service provision whereby domestic violence response has been focused primarily on emergency response. There needs to be increased action to prevent domestic violence in the first place, with emphasis placed on transitioning survivors of abuse and violence to stable living conditions as opposed to temporary emergency shelters. This requires a holistic understanding of the causes of domestic violence, including financial reliance on abusive partners, precarious immigration status and lack of options for affordable housing. Prevention might entail ensuring employment and stable, affordable housing for survivors to transition into post shelter admission, as well as ongoing psychosocial supports and therapy. 

Research shows that there was an increase in sexual and gender-based violence during the 2013-2015 Ebola Outbreak in West Africa, where response efforts also focused on containing the disease through home confinement measures; protocols were never established to protect girls and women from violence during the outbreak, and the closure of schools and quarantine left adolescent girls and women vulnerable to coercion and abuse. 

A crucial lesson to be learnt from the Ebola outbreak for our COVID-19 response is the fact that epidemics create specific vulnerabilities for women and children and measures must be put into place prior to an outbreak to prevent and mitigate violence. Furthermore, all services that protect and shelter women during a disaster should be considered “essential’ and organizations must find innovative ways to reach survivors of violence under stay at home and social distancing measures. This could include alternate entry ways for survivors to access care, such as covert installations for shelter information and help set ups in grocery stores and pharmacies. 

Although stay at home measures are necessary to contain the spread of COVID-19, we must acknowledge that home is not the safest place for everyone. We must ensure that infrastructure and community supports that are culturally competent are put in place prior to outbreaks so that those who are vulnerable in society are not left forgotten or alone, especially in the time of a pandemic.