In the months since mid-March when COVID-19 struck Canada, public health officials have responded to this global crisis in collaboration with provincial and federal governments, at an unprecedented level many of us have never witnessed in our lifetimes. This has included an extremely calculated response to strategic planning, working with the media, evaluation, and ground-level solutions to test, treat, and prevent the spread of the pandemic.
With researchers, government policy-makers, and public health officials spurred into action, another pervasive public health epidemic has worsened in the face of COVID-19: gender-based violence (GBV).
Gender-Based Violence: What is it and how prevalent is it?
GBV is an umbrella term used to include emotional, mental, financial, physical, domestic, and sexual abuse. GBV disproportionately effects marginalized populations including: women, children, elders, Indigenous peoples, people of colour, people in the 2SLGBTQQIA community, those who identify as non-binary, trans individuals, and any combination of these intersecting factors. Consequently, GBV leads to immediate, long-term, and chronic health impacts such as major depressive disorder, migraines, endometriosis, intestinal illnesses, and suicidality amongst many others.
Globally, 243 million females between the ages of 15 and 49 have experienced GBV at the hands of an intimate partner over the course of the last year. Nationally, 1 woman is killed every 6 days with the highest risk of homicide occurring while she’s pregnant.
With many of the primary measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 including self-isolation and quarantine, not everyone finds safety and refuge in the spaces they call home. In fact, just as specialists and professionals in the field suspected, rates of GBV have spiked during COVID-19.
One survey conducted by Statistics Canada revealed that 1 in 10 women are concerned about experiencing domestic violence during the pandemic. While this surge is not exclusive to Canada, with other countries including the United Kingdom, France, and China witnessing the same increases in GBV and crisis centre calls, a greater question of why this is happening must be considered.
Why the increase in cases of gender-based violence?
The correlation between GBV and the COVID-19 pandemic includes a number of interrelated factors. Encompassed are drastic increases in stress-related factors: the volatility of the economy has left many without a stable income, there is concern over food insecurity, paranoia about contracting COVID-19, worsening of pre-existing mental illnesses, increased drug and alcohol consumption, stigma, victim-blaming attitudes, and an overall feeling of insecurity and uncertainty.
Self-isolating measures have also removed necessary familial and community-wide supports for many women experiencing GBV. Many of the GBV support services including emergency rooms, shelters, and helplines have changed their hours of operation, intervention abilities, and capacities. It is also common for survivors of GBV to exhibit feelings of imposition and drain on the system at any time, let alone during a pandemic.
From a service provider perspective, a significant concern is that the brutality and intensity of domestic violence will also increase during the pandemic. Many first-responders to COVID-19 work within female-dominated ‘helping professions’. Therefore, women are disproportionately at a heightened risk of experiencing violent and traumatic harm related to the pandemic while at work.
Accounting for these numerous factors, it is no wonder that the combination of GBV and the COVID-19 outbreak conjure the perfect storm, only to intensify pre-existing public health issues. Provided the intersection between COVID-19 and the exacerbation of GBV in Canada, it is essential that we turn to policy makers and elected officials in government to respond with the same urgency they have to the pandemic itself.
Policy recommendations: How should Canada respond?
Informed by prominent organizations including the Violence Against Women Learning Network, the Canadian Women’s Foundation, and the United Nations Development Programme, here are some of the most basic intervention parameters decision-makers can employ:
Systemically address the social determinants of health and populations at increased risk of experiencing GBV through an intersectional approach. This includes initiating a basic and ongoing income for citizens and growing community-wide resources for women’s shelters, GBV hotlines, and GBV intervention and prevention programming.
Ensure that urban and rural communities have an adequate financial safety net to respond to individuals’ unique life circumstances and increased demand for resources.
Interventions for GBV should be integrated into current pandemic prevention procedures including supplying resources in all public health media messaging and materials.
Consult with GBV specialists, associations, and survivors on what is most needed. By putting women at the heart of policy development, decisions that follow are more likely to have positive intended impacts. Likewise, engagement with males is crucial.
Though navigating interventions for GBV during the pandemic will comprise strategic planning, program development, advocacy work, and more, it is imperative that we hold policy makers accountable to do so immediately; innocent lives depend on it.
About the author
Alyssa Hartwell is a recent graduate from the Master of Public Health & Social Policy program at the University of Victoria. She has dedicated her education and career to the eradication of gender-based violence through public health intervention and prevention approaches, intersectoral collaboration, and community development. Alyssa has a passion for empowering womxn, social justice, and health promotion. She has taught workshops on consent and healthy relationships at both Mount Royal University and through the Alberta Society for the Promotion of Sexual Health (ASPSH). Alyssa recently completed her practicum at the Association of Alberta Sexual Assault Services (AASAS) where she provided service delivery recommendations to increase access to sexual assault centres for Indigenous populations across the province. Since completing her MPH, Alyssa has taken on the volunteer role of Prepare Her Curriculum Coordinator at Ask Her YYC where she provides leadership for womxn to run for City Council and become more effective in civic engagement opportunities. Find her on LinkedIn here.