Canada is sadly no outlier in the global trend of rising violence against women and girls during the COVID-19 pandemic observed by the United Nations. This “shadow pandemic” was the focus of this year’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence running until December 10.
“Since the outbreak of COVID-19, emerging data and reports from those on the front lines, have shown that all types of violence against women and girls, particularly domestic violence, has intensified,” the UN Women wrote on its website.
Interim Place, a Mississauga based shelter for abused women and their children, saw a spike in calls by 30 per cent during the pandemic, according to Executive Director Sharon Floyd. Survivors of violence also experienced more pressure and stress.
Pandemic heightened pressure on violence survivors
The shelter observed many instances of breaching joint custody orders during the pandemic, Floyd said. Because there were no courts open at the beginning of the pandemic, individuals having joint custody agreements would often put their partners in tough situations.
“Partners were not adhering to orders because they would know that there is no enforcement at that time,” she said.
For example, the child would not be returned on time, and after repeated requests, the mother would be told to pick up the child herself, even though the partner knew she “was at home with other young children and didn’t have childcare available to leave them home to go pick up the other child,” Floyd said.
Most at risk were individuals with disabilities and relying on abusive partners as caregivers. The survivors could not get the usual care, as they no longer had health care providers coming to their homes.
Abusive partners were not supportive, so survivors were found “sitting in soiled clothing and not being bathed for days as other social support were not coming that they were getting.”
Clients used strategic ways to signal that they were in need of emergency support, for instance putting out items or signs on their balconies to be seen by counsellors.
Creative ways were also used by counsellors, for instance providing clients with phones that could be used from the bathroom or when the abuser stepped out with the garbage. Code words were set to signal when clients were not safe to talk. Social media was extensively used for communication.
Toxic masculinity is reversible
Immigrants land in Canada with dreams of a better life, but cultural proclivities do not change easily, and women from racialized communities often face gender-based violence along with the harsh realities of the settlement process.
Despite a lot of education, counselling, and Canada’s robust legal system, 10 out of eight women in the Punjabi community face some form of abuse, leaving the worst impact if witnessed by children, said Amandeep Kaur, Chief Operating Officer at Punjabi Community Health Services. In its vilest form, violence leads to homicide.
Kaur, who landed in Canada in 1988, explains that “back home, shame is associated with stigma,” while in Canada, the legal system offers protection. However, due to cultural differences, women don’t always identify abuse for what it is.
“Until they are physically abused, they do not consider it abuse. Emotional, verbal or financial abuse is still tolerated,” Kaur says.
Kaur has 13 years of experience working with domestic and alcohol-related violence.
She shared the story of a violent husband from a Punjabi Sikh community, whom she described as “a man in denial.” He was referred to one-on-one counselling services with Kaur after he breached his bail condition of not driving while drunk.
Earlier, he had been charged with domestic violence. He also attended Substance Use Counselling sessions under the S.A.H.A.R.A Program for Men.
Kaur said that the program is helpful for men because, without alcohol-abuse treatment, counselling for anger management is not effective.
He didn’t stop coming to sessions and classes even after his probation period ended, and that’s the “turning point,” Kaur added. “In his long-term treatment plan for almost a year, he started to agree on his accountabilities and worked around them.”
He has now been living a happy family life for six years.
Kaur commented that it’s vital to have a patch-up process through the Canadian legal and support system, not via cultural values.
Beyond basics, accessibility is key
While it’s been widely accepted that toxic masculinity and misogyny are the root causes of violence against women, what is needed to make the dream of a violence-free society come true, besides education, is the accessibility of support measures.
Floyd says that her organization looks at the issue of violence against women from the criminal justice perspective. That’s why it is important to have community and agencies’ support.
“The individuals can access the systems that understand their experiences, empower them and work alongside them to make best decisions for the plans of their families,” she says.
Floyd insists that support systems need to be designed with women in mind.
Kaur calls for educational resources available to every family member including parents, in-laws, siblings and children. She believes that these resources should be available in the languages spoken in different communities.
“We are not doing justice to the service to those women or family members by not having the staff who speak that language,” Kaur said. “To move to a violence-free society, we need to develop an action plan beyond the basics.”