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We’re Not All Safe at Home: Pandemics, Increased Risks of Sexual Violence, and Trauma Work

Olga Marques, PhD
Assistant Professor, Ontario Tech University
Vice President, Board of Directors, DRCC

Gemma Broderick
Executive Director, DRCC

Emma Conner
Community Development and Volunteer Coordinator, DRCC

May 26, 2020

We are all in the same storm together, but we are not all on the same ship.

When the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic in March 2020, many governments locally, federally, and globally declared a state of emergency. Following public health and epidemiological recommendations, this meant the shutting down of schools, daycare centres, restaurants, most retail establishments, recreation facilities, public outdoor spaces, etc., among many other spaces and services. The advice was clear: Stay at home. Protect each other. Reduce the spread. Flatten the curve.

To encourage citizens to shelter in place, slogans of unity were coined. The phrase: “We’re all in this together” began showing up on signs in Toronto (Pelley 2020). And we were told: “We are not stuck at home. We’re safe at home.”

But home is not a safe space for everyone. (And also, not everyone has a home).

What does it mean to be isolated at home, potentially with your abuser?

The horrific mass shooting event that spanned a weekend in Portapique, Nova Scotia on April 18 and 19, 2020, taking the lives of 22 people, took Canada by surprise. While we continue to mourn the loss of those whose lives were lost, such grand-scale tragedies serve to draw our attention to social issues – in this instance, the potential escalation of domestic violence into a mass-scale public threat. But what about gender-based violence when it is not a threat to the general public? According to the Canadian Women’s Foundation (2018):

  • Half of all women in Canada have experienced at least once incident of physical or sexual violence since the age of 16
  • 67% of Canadians know a woman who has experienced physical or sexual assault
  • Approximately every six days, a woman in Canada is killed by her intimate partner
  • Indigenous women are killed at 6 times the rate of non-Indigenous women
  • 60 per cent of senior survivors experiencing elder abuse from a family member, are women
  • 6,000+ women and children sleep in shelters on any given night, because it isn’t safe at home

In addition, Status of Women Canada (2019) notes that students represent 41 per cent of all reported sexual assaults, and that as a result of the #MeToo movement, there was an exponential increase in police-reported sexual assaults.

These numbers, however, do not speak to the full extent of the issue of gender-based violence against women. The majority of sexual and physical violence against women and girls goes unreported. Academic research, as well as data collected by shelters and crisis centres/lines, consistently finds that the vast majority of survivors do not report to hospitals, doctors, nor to the police.

A global pandemic like COVID-19 reveals longstanding societal problems, amplifies inequalities, and also serves to create new vulnerabilities. Research tells us that after periods of emergency and economic crisis, violence against women and children increases, this includes sexual violence. There is an increased risk of sexual abuse during this time – whether it be sexual violence perpetrated by siblings, parents, other family members, or intimate partners; or the heightened risk of exploitation and coercion leading to sex trafficking. Given what we know about violence against women in Canada, and the escalation of violence against women during periods of crisis, turmoil, and uncertainty, the Canadian federal government pledged $30 million to address the immediate needs of shelters and sexual assault centres in order to support women experiencing and/or fleeing from sexual and other gender-based violence during the pandemic (Black 2020).

In our community, the Durham Rape Crisis Centre (DRCC) quickly adapted their services online, including shifting individual and group counselling and programming to a secure virtual platform. However, we recognize that many women are responsible for childcare, eldercare, and homecare during this time and do not have a safe, secure, and private place to do this trauma work. Not everyone has access to reliable internet, or a laptop or smartphone, which can create further inequities and vulnerability to more abuse. This is in addition to the reality that many women are isolated at home with their abusers, and unable to even access supports.

With respect to trends on the front line, DRCC notes that the demand for service has changed and evolved over the course of the pandemic. In the beginning, there was a degree of panic and increased anxiety that was expressed by clients and callers using the DRCC 24-hour support line. Counsellors found that doing in-depth trauma work needed to be put on pause to help clients with the current pressures of living through a pandemic. Many clients were/are dealing with food and economic insecurity, fear of contracting COVID-19, illness and even deaths within the family, lack of child care, increased work in the home, etc., among many other concurrent needs and challenges. As such, for clients, the journey of trauma work may look different. For some, it is ‘put on hold’, but for others, now more than ever is when they need support in connecting how their sexual trauma may be impacting their ability to cope during this time, and a continued journey of healing is what they may need. New clients are adapting faster to online counselling sessions and the frequency of calls on the crisis line is more recently mirroring pre-COVID levels. Given the ever-evolving and uncertain nature of current times, we are not yet sure what these trends may signify, nor what the long-term impacts of the pandemic may be. The ways clients are engaging with the services offered are changing, as have the ways in which services are offered. 

May is Sexual Violence Awareness Month and DRCC has planned an awareness campaign including radio, print and digital ads, training, and online panel discussions, including a research academic panel to discuss this topic further. Please join us by participating in the panel discussion and please feel free to reach out if you or someone you know is a survivor of sexual violence and you need support by visiting the Durham Rape Crisis Centre (DRCC) website or call our 24/7 crisis and support line at 905.668.9200.