TW/CW: domestic violence, violence against women, gender-based violence 

A year into the pandemic, it is clear that COVID-19 has led to more than a global health crisis. It has also laid bare some of our deepest divisions and the worst of our social ills.

One issue brought into the open by the pandemic is domestic violence. In Canada, the province of Quebec alone has seen 10 women lose their lives at the hands of an abusive partner. Across the country, calls to women’s organizations have nearly doubled since the start of 2020. Indigenous women have faced the highest rates of violence. In a survey done by the Native Women’s Association of Canada, one in five Indigenous women reported that they had been a victim of physical or psychological abuse in just the first two months of the pandemic. 

To be sure, domestic violence is not a new phenomenon. It has long impacted Canadians of all genders, although its toll is highest among women who account for 80% of intimate partner homicide victims. In fact, before COVID-19, one woman lost her life to violence by an intimate partner every 2.5 days in Canada. Indigenous women have long experienced the highest rates of abuse and murder. While Aboriginal, Métis, and Inuit women make up only 4.3% of Canada’s population, in 2018, they accounted for 16% of all homicide victims and 11% of all missing women. 

At the international level as well, violence against women and girls is a longstanding issue. According to UN estimates, one in three women worldwide have experienced intimate partner violence or sexual violence. Nearly 137 women are killed by a member of their family every day. In Canada, gender-based violence has increased alongside COVID-19 worldwide. Although a lack of data makes it hard to discern exact figures, world leaders representing a full range of political persuasions, geographical regions, and organizations have voiced alarm over a spike in domestic abuse since 2019.   

In part, financial stress, job loss, and a sense of lack of control have driven the rise in domestic violence. However, the biggest factor is isolation. Whatever the type of abuse, be it physical, verbal, or psychological, isolation is the common element used by abusers to lock a victim into a cycle of violence. Pre-pandemic, preventing isolation was integral to breaking that cycle. Now, this has been made difficult by lockdown measures and stay-at-home orders common in many countries. Sadly, the impact of this is all too clear not just in the number of lives taken, but in the day-to-day reality of those who are living in unrelenting fear of violence.  

However, to truly overcome domestic violence, Canada needs to address the high rates of murder, abuse, and racism faced by Indigenous women.

Increasing support for women’s shelters can help victims of domestic violence. Yet the role of shelters is limited – they may offer refuge, but they do not stop the violence from starting. Moreover, the risk of domestic homicide is highest after separation. Shelters cannot offer ongoing protection to victims of abuse.

With the issue forced into the spotlight by the pandemic, now is the time to ask what more can be done to stop domestic violence?

For one, we must change the way we think about domestic abuse. Still today, a common attitude is to fault victims for staying in an abusive relationship. This view not only absolves the abuser of responsibility, but also adds to a sense of shame that prevents many from reaching out. Instead of victim-blaming, policy responses must shift to focus on the factors that make it so difficult to leave an abusive relationship in the first place.

Another common perception is that domestic violence only happens in a home. This is also untrue. For example, a 2014 survey done by Western University and the Canadian Labour Congress found that nearly half of workers with an abusive partner experienced violence at or close to work (including stalking, harassing phone calls, and assault). 80% also indicated that the violence had impacted their performance at work.

Of course, changing perceptions alone will not solve the problem. Better understanding what domestic violence is, where it happens, and how to break the cycle of abuse is crucial to identifying new ways to address the issue.  

Canada has made important strides in this regard. One example is workplace protections for victims of abuse. The idea may seem paradoxical at first, but, given that domestic violence often extends to the workplace and victims are less isolated at work, workplace protections are not only appropriate, they can also be lifesaving. To this end, the federal government and five provinces have introduced a leave of at least four days for workers experiencing domestic violence. This allows a woman to, for instance, file a police report or find a new apartment out of the sight of the abuser. Canada’s unions have also led important initiatives to protect victims of abuse. These initiatives include introducing safety plans and training local representatives and managers to be workplace supports for employees facing abuse. This is critical. Even in an online setting, colleagues may be among the few people the victim is not isolated from. 

Canada is one of the few countries to have workplace legislation protecting victims of domestic violence. These policies have been lauded by international organizations, women’s groups, employers, and workers associations worldwide. Post-pandemic, this legislation can serve as a valuable example to countries that are also confronting high rates of domestic violence. The most important takeaway from Canada’s workplace protections though is that it shows that different individuals and institutions across society can play a role in protecting victims of abuse. Ultimately, it will take a whole-of-society approach to deal with such a pervasive problem. Shelters or law enforcement can protect victims when violence escalates but faith-based groups or community organizations, like workplaces, are better-placed to prevent isolation and can break the cycle of abuse at its start.

However, to truly overcome domestic violence, Canada needs to address the high rates of murder, abuse, and racism faced by Indigenous women. Failing to do so also cuts any moral standing we have to speak out on violence against women on the world stage. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls have already determined the changes Canada must make to address the root causes behind the staggering level of violence against Indigenous women and girls. It is time to move on to the recommendations put forward by both commissions. This is an essential part of the broad, whole-of-society change that must take place to end the crisis of domestic violence in Canada.

Karina Sihota holds an M.A. from the Norman Patterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University. She worked for six years as a Policy and Government Relations Specialist at the Canadian Labour Congress and has recently taken on a role as Policy Analyst at Global Affairs Canada.

Banner image by Maxim Hopman, courtesy of Unsplash.

Related reading: Rethinking Gender-Based Violence in a Post-Pandemic World
Related podcast: Episode 49, The Shadow Pandemic

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