Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has turned our lives upside down. It has also revealed persisting inequities and systemic issues within our society. While COVID-19 itself has been widespread and deadly, there is a second, shadow pandemic at work here–one of gender based and intimate partner violence. Gender Based Violence (GBV) refers to harmful acts directed at an individual based on their gender, while Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) is violence committed by one partner against another in an intimate relationship. This crisis may be less outwardly visible than COVID-19, but it is just as deadly and isolating. While GBV and IPV are generally believed to be a “series of isolated incidents,” we know that this is not true – gender based violence and intimate partner violence are connected to a patriarchal belief system that values certain lives above others. In other words, this is a systemic issue.
The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated these forms of violence, with helplines for women experiencing abuse reporting dramatic increases in calls as well as an increase in the severity of the violence itself. It is clear that gender equality must be at the centre of post-pandemic rebuilding plans if we are to create a future of safety and security for women.
So what is it about the COVID-19 pandemic that has increased acts of gender based violence? There are a number of combined factors that have effectively increased the pressure of home environments, creating the conditions for increased conflict and tension in many households.
For many, the pandemic has meant heightened economic insecurity; in May of 2020, Canada’s unemployment rate sat at 13.7%, making it the lowest of the G7 countries. When households are struggling financially, tensions are high and conflict is more likely to occur or be more severe. This explains why we have seen increasingly violent domestic violence crimes occur during the pandemic.
Social isolations and quarantines also create barriers to escaping abusive situations. Women find themselves cut off from informal supports such as colleagues and friends, while remaining increasingly exposed to the perpetrators of the violence. Being stuck inside with their abusers also means that these women have less privacy and are therefore unable to call, for example, a domestic violence hotline for support.
Times of unrest and uncertainty inevitably result in the breakdown of supports and structures, and this can lead to increased difficulties for victims of GBV and IPV. On a societal level, there has been a reduced access to health and first responder services during the pandemic. On a more personal level, instability in all realms of life may mean that victims are choosing to remain with their partners because of emotional attachment or fear of separation.
The pandemic may have highlighted and heightened the issue of gender based and intimate partner violence, but it has also given us an opportunity to pause and reconsider how to institute systems and programming that better support the victims of these crimes. We must recognize that this is indeed a systemic crisis, and that it is not a series of unrelated incidents. We must acknowledge the ways that COVD-19 has exacerbated this issue, and work to rebuild systems that will improve the lives of victims and survivors. Some policy changes that could support these goals include expanding and reinforcing social safety nets, improving violence related first response systems, and increasing shelter and temporary housing space for survivors.