Worsened gender-based violence continues during COVID-19, disproportionately affecting marginalized communities


Government, organizations say systemic change is needed

gender-based violence graphic of open door
Graphics by Darian Lee

This article discusses gender-based violence and may be difficult for some readers.

In March 2020, the Battered Women’s Crisis Line in B.C. received 1 800 calls for support — twice what they received in March 2019. In April, they received three times more calls than in the same month the year before.

According to the federal government, gender-based violence — violence directed at someone based on their gender, including sexualized violence and intimate-partner violence — has increased 20 to 30 per cent since the onset of the pandemic. 

Heightened gender-based violence during the pandemic hasn’t affected everyone equally. People who experience marginalization, and the intersections of different aspects of marginalization, have been disproportionately impacted. This has left advocates calling for systemic change: COVID-19 has worsened inequities, but the gaps were already there.

Worsened violence, barriers to support

Gender-based violence has increased locally as well. Reports of domestic violence to the Victoria Police Department from March 15 to Oct. 15, 2020 were 21.2 per cent higher than in the same period in 2019. 

This increase is likely understated. Gender-based violence can go unreported for a variety of reasons including (but not limited to): the stigma associated with gender-based violence, trauma responses to gender-based violence, and fear of the consequences of reporting. For racialized people, distrust of police may also prevent individuals from reporting. Therefore, police reports are a limited indicator of the change.

Violence hasn’t just grown more frequent during the pandemic, it’s grown more severe and fatal, according to a survey conducted by the Ending Violence Association of Canada and Ontario-based support organization Anova.

Higher rates and intensity of violence haven’t impacted everyone the same — marginalized groups have been disproportionately affected. In the pandemic’s first few months, 20 per cent of Indigenous women, girls, trans, two-spirit, and gender-diverse people experienced intimate-partner violence.

Alana Prochuk, manager of public legal education at West Coast LEAF, says gender-based violence has increased during the pandemic — and increased disproportionately for different groups — because the risk factors for violence have worsened.

One of these risk factors is economic insecurity. For people facing intimate-partner violence, economic insecurity makes it harder to move. For others, economic insecurity may force them to work in increasingly precarious situations where they may experience violence, which is what Prochuk says has happened to sex workers during the pandemic.

“Poverty is always a huge barrier to pursuing greater safety,” said Prochuk. The economic harms of the pandemic have disproportionately affected people who already experience other marginalizations. Prochuk emphasizes that people working in part-time, casual positions, who are often racialized and often women, have lost jobs to an unequal degree during COVID-19. People with disabilities have also been treated harshly by the COVID-19 economy: Statistics Canada found that 61 per cent of people with disabilities said the pandemic significantly impacted their ability to meet at least one basic need during the pandemic. 

Even as employment recovered slightly in the summer, marginalized groups saw their employment levels decrease. 

Because economic insecurity is a risk factor for violence, the pandemic’s inequitable economic effects have shaped the impacts of gender-based violence. Unequal distribution of risk factors leads to unequal distribution of violence.

Along with heightening violence, COVID-19 has made it harder for survivors to access support. Crisis centres and transition homes were forced to reduce capacity due to physical distancing measures, and many support services moved online. However, virtual services have their own challenges: it’s hard for someone experiencing violence to seek help online when they’re living with the perpetrator. 

Difficulty accessing services may be part of why some providers, including the Anti-Violence Project (AVP) on campus, are seeing less requests for service. 

“Even though we’ve been available, and have been sharing our support services on social media platforms, we haven’t actually seen a lot of people accessing our support,” said Marwo Abdi, AVP’s support coordinator.

AVP launched a survey in November to understand the barriers to accessing their supports and are still collecting responses.

As with violence itself, barriers to support affect some groups more than others. In 2019, 61 per cent of Indigenous communities in B.C. did not have reliable internet. Indigenous survivors, therefore, may face additional barriers to accessing support virtually during COVID-19.

For some, the barriers to support may be the services themselves. Prochuk notes that many gender-based violence support services exclude trans people.

“It’s not enough for the programs to exist, they actually have to be safe for people,” Prochuk said. “[They] have to be safe for people, be welcoming, be attuned to their needs and the realities of their lives.”

Responding to violence

In response to heightened gender-based violence during COVID-19, support organizations have adapted their services and governments have provided funding. Despite the influx of money, some say the government response is only a band-aid solution. 

AVP now provides support by email, phone, and videoconference, and offers their workshops virtually.

The Victoria Sexual Assault Centre (VSAC) has shifted many of their support services, like counselling, online, but continues to provide emergency sexual assault response through their Sexual Assault Clinic. The VSAC did not respond to a request to be interviewed for this story.

Worsened violence and the challenges of adapting to COVID-19 have not gone unnoticed by governments. Since May, the federal government has provided $100 million to organizations that work to mitigate the effects of gender-based violence. Of that money, $20 million was directed to shelters and support organizations that provide support specifically for Indigenous people. 

Laurel Collins, the Member of Parliament for Victoria, thinks this isn’t enough. The government’s emergency funding, she says, has mostly helped organizations adapt to COVID-19 through additions like barriers and increased cleaning.

“That kind of funding, while a very important, small piece, really doesn’t address the huge need in our communities,” said Collins. “Organizations are struggling with core funding.”

The B.C. government has also increased support for  gender-based violence organizations during the pandemic. They provided $10 million for emergency sexual assault response, with half earmarked for Indigenous-led programming; opened 300 temporary shelter spaces for people leaving violence; and allowed survivors an essential visitor to accompany them when receiving medical care.

Prochuk was happy to see the $10 million for community-based sexual assault services, but thinks the government response has room for improvement. West Coast LEAF’s “COVID-19 BC Gender Equality Report Card,” released in December 2020, gives the province a C for “freedom from violence.”

West Coast LEAF has advocated for greater funding for health services, including counselling and forensic nurse examiners, and legal aid for people experiencing family violence. 

One challenge in responding to the inequitable impacts of gender-based violence during the pandemic is a lack of disaggregated data — data that separates responses by factors like ethnicity, Indigeneity, sexual orientation, and ability to show the differential impacts of phenomena. Disaggregated data is one tool to understand how challenges like gender-based violence may disproportionately affect people experiencing multiple, intersecting forms of marginalization. For example, the gender equality report card notes that there is little data on violence against trans women of colour, even though West Coast LEAF’s community partners report that trans people of all genders face disproportionate levels of violence.

B.C.’s Parliamentary Secretary for Gender Equity Grace Lore is aware of this challenge, and has been working to consider how to access better data about the intersectional impacts of structural racism. However, Lore, who is also the Member of the Legislative Assembly for Victoria-Beacon Hill, notes that there are fundamental challenges in securing data about sexual assault since people are often reluctant to report.

Disaggregated data has its own drawbacks, however. The B.C. Office of the Human Rights Commissioner notes in a 2020 report that disaggregated data may be used to further stigmatize and oppress already marginalized groups. 

Despite a lack of quantified information, Prochuk, Lore, and Collins all say there is no question that gender-based violence during the pandemic has affected marginalized communities more. This leaves many stakeholders calling for systemic change on top of mitigation efforts.

Changing the system

Addressing the root causes of gender-based violence is something that AVP spends a lot of time working on. Their consent workshops and Men’s Circle aim to promote consent culture and challenge the systemic causes of violence and its disproportionate impacts.

“We talk a lot about gender-based violence, sexualized violence being rooted in other forms of oppressive systems […] like colonization, sexism, racism, homophobia,” said Abdi. “Addressing those things and creating more community and care and consent culture. That’s what our workshops focus on: consent.”

Lore recognizes addressing systemic causes of violence as part of her mandate. She will be working to develop a gender-based action plan with the Ministry of Public Safety and the Solicitor General, implementing core funding for sexual assault centres, and introducing trauma-informed training and standards of care for sexual assault centres.

“The gender-based action plan is about ending gender-based violence, so considering root causes is absolutely central to the work we do […] in addition to finding the gaps in service and trying to get the care out where it’s needed in the moment,” said Lore.

For Collins, two things are needed to address the fundamental causes of violence and its unequal effects: changing stigma and providing necessary services.

Changing stigma means dismantling the broader social dynamics that lead to violence, like sexism, but it also requires reforming policies and institutions that are shaped by stigma. Collins cites sex work legislation as an example of how government policies can be based in stigma, making it difficult for sex workers to access protection and safety.

The other half of the equation, she says, is providing services like income support and child care to people so that they don’t end up in precarious situations where they may encounter violence.

“There’s another side of the deep work of addressing gender-based violence, and what that is is supporting people with the services that they need when they need them,” said Collins.

Though governments and advocates may have very different ideas of how best to counter gender-based violence, they generally agree that the causes are deeply rooted. There is no question that the causes of violence — and the causes of its disproportionate effects — go far beyond the pandemic.

“All these deep inequalities have existed since forever in B.C.,” said Prochuk. “The pandemic has really just highlighted them and deepened them, and that’s definitely the case in terms of increases in gender-based violence and barriers in accessing services.”

AVP can be contacted at 778-400-5007, info@antiviolenceproject.org, or at https://www.antiviolenceproject.org/. VSAC can be contacted at 250-383-3232, access@vsac.ca, or at https://vsac.ca/. First Nations Health Authority provides a list of resources for First Nations people experiencing violence during COVID-19 at https://www.fnha.ca/about/news-and-events/news/when-staying-home-is-not-safe.