Looking out the window had become like watching TV for Alison*—it was a way to observe something that she couldn’t be a part of. Outside, her friendly neighbours chatted with one another from their front steps and driveways, enjoying the socially distanced daily ritual they’d established soon after lockdowns were put in place in Vancouver in March of 2020. She had joined them a couple of times, but it wasn’t worth it anymore. “[My husband] would get mad that I was ignoring him,” she tells me over the phone.

For Alison and many other women living with abusive partners, the early pandemic cemented them to unstable ground, taking away their ability to not only leave their homes freely but also seek safety. The United Nations called the pandemic’s impact on violence against women a “shadow pandemic,” in which isolation and financial precarity resulting from lockdowns tethered many at-risk female-identifying people to abusive situations.

Their silence was loud. Women’s Shelters Canada reports that across the country, crisis calls and requests for admission showed a drastic decrease during the first three months of the pandemic. Calls spiked as stay-at-home restrictions eased, but much of the world was still inaccessible. “So many of the public spaces that women would have used [to contact us], like libraries, community centres and shopping centres, were closed down,” says Lise Martin, executive director of Women’s Shelters Canada. “There weren’t many opportunities to reach out.”

Even if they have the chance, many women don’t seek support from shelters because of the stigma that surrounds them and because of the tendency of survivors to downplay their situations. “To access a shelter is to acknowledge that you’ve experienced something difficult enough to warrant [you getting] that support,” says Ottawa-based women’s rights advocate Julie S. Lalonde.

Lalonde explains that not only was access to support limited for victims trapped at home with their abusers in the early days of the pandemic but also the world around them wasn’t paying attention. “In all the conversations about essential workers, we failed to talk about shelters and crisis centres as essential spaces that remained open,” she says.

Alison’s increasingly controlling husband wasn’t satiated by the lockdown’s forced togetherness. “I wasn’t even allowed to go grocery shopping alone,” she says. At the store, he would forbid her to buy certain foods and verbally abuse her for innocuous things, like when she suggested that he wear his mask in an outdoor line. At home, anything could send him into a blind rage. Things reached a boiling point when Alison realized the impact this was having on their 14-year-old son. “I would wake him up every day and say ‘We’ll do whatever he wants us to do; just don’t make him angry,’” she says. “It felt like prison.”

According to Martin, abusive relationships usually build up slowly and many victims get worn down by intensifying emotional and psychological mistreatment. “If you’ve been in a relationship where someone has been controlling you or your finances or emotionally abusing you, your self-esteem goes way down,” she says. Jennifer*, a Toronto-based survivor, knows all too well that the repercussions of living with these types of abuse are long-lasting. Even though she left her partner in 2017, the isolation of lockdown took her right back to the emotional hellscape of living with him. “I went into my laundry room and started feeling alone, scared and trapped,” she says. “Then I realized I used to feel that way when I was with my ex—like my time did not belong to me. Every part of my life was completely controlled by him, and then it felt like the pandemic was controlling every part of my life.”

Neither of these survivors reached out to a shelter at any point. This is because they weren’t in urgent need of housing, which points to a larger issue—one that Martin’s organization is trying to combat: Many people don’t realize that women’s shelters do much more than offer beds to those in need. “You don’t have to stay in a shelter to access shelter support,” says Martin. “Many shelters can connect women with key city services, whether it’s housing, legal [assistance] or employment.” Lalonde adds that victims can call shelter crisis lines for help in coming up with a safety plan. “The cultural conversation is always pushing women to leave but never showing them how to do it safely,” she says.

Malina Corpadean

When shelters do provide housing, they do so in a couple of ways. First-stage shelters, or emergency shelters, offer housing for women and children in urgent need and are equipped with private rooms with adjoining bathrooms for short stays. Shelters across the country were already operating at near capacity pre-pandemic, and one reason for the current room shortage is that COVID safety precautions have eliminated bathroom sharing. Second-stage shelters, called “transition houses” in some provinces, provide longer-term living arrangements: between 12 and 24 months in independent units. Martin highlights that the women and children who live in these units have access to extra support, like counselling. “We all know about the cycles of violence, and these kids have clearly been impacted,” she says.

Women often enter these shelters when they’re at their most vulnerable, when the idea of rebuilding their lives feels like a pipe dream. “There are psychological factors, but there are also legal and economic factors, so they need extra time,” says Martin. Once they’re more stable, women pay a portion of their income or social security toward rent. Funding for these spaces isn’t equal across the country, though—Saskatchewan, Ontario and Newfoundland all provide zero support. “The second-stage shelters that exist in these provinces all need to get their funding through patchwork systems,” says Martin. Currently, there are 450 emergency shelters and 124 second-stage shelters in Canada. Martin says that that number should be much higher, noting that in late October, every single shelter in Alberta and Nova Scotia was at capacity and there were just six rooms left in all of Manitoba.

Even with their living arrangements, employment and mental-health care managed, mothers who have left abusive partners often still have to contend with the fathers’ legal right to see their kids. While both Alison and Jennifer were able to leave their abusive exes, they’re now dealing with the labyrinth that is Canada’s legal system to sort out custody. Judges deciding on the outcomes aren’t always properly informed about, or sensitive to, the complexities of abuse. “[Laws are] interpreted by judges and also police, the Crown, attorneys and child-welfare and immigration officials,” says Martin, which means there is too much room for subjectivity. The new Divorce Act, which was implemented in March 2021, aims to prioritize the child’s best interests and consider domestic abuse when deciding on custody. “It was the first time that domestic violence had been considered in terms of how a situation is analyzed, so we do have laws in place, but they’re often not properly implemented,” says Martin. Judges still commonly favour the status quo, so if a child lived with or saw an abusive parent 50 percent of the time before their parents split up, the parents would most likely get joint custody, even though the Canadian Domestic Homicide Prevention Initiative reports that children are more in danger of being harmed after the abusive parent has separated from their partner.

Getting the Canadian legal system to consider domestic violence in divorce cases was a step in the right direction, but it’s only a start. The federal election last year saw the scrapping of Bill C-247, a private member’s bill brought forward by British Columbia NDP MP Randall Garrison, which aimed to add coercive control to the Criminal Code. This would have meant that many of the methods abusers use to ensure an emotional, financial and psychological hold over their victims—including isolation, surveillance, humiliation, dehumanizing behaviour, threats and intimidation—would be considered criminal offences. Garrison’s reason for putting the bill forward was backed by research as well as survivors and advocates who see establishing laws around coercive control as crucial to changing the conversation and ending violence against women. “Economic abuse has been happening to women for as long as capitalism has existed, but we rarely connect the dots between it and other forms of violence,” says Lalonde.

According to Martin, laws that impact intimate-partner and gender-based violence should be made clearer and interpreted with survivors in mind—something that will need to be taught at all levels of government and law enforcement as well as to the general public. “We don’t just need more funding for shelters; [we need] a fundamental change in our approach to education [when it comes to] men and boys,” she says. While it’s essential that we do more to help women who are in abusive situations, gender-based violence won’t end until we actively dismantle toxic masculinity, starting with countering gender-stereotyped messaging like “Boys don’t cry” and “Don’t be such a girl”—things boys often start hearing before they can even write their own name. For girls and young women, Lalonde would love to see a bigger investment in programs that bolster self-confidence, reduce self-blame and encourage awareness about entitlement to protection.

The prevalence of gender-based violence is also very much a product of our nation’s shameful colonial history. A woman or girl is killed due to gender-based violence in Canada every 2.5 days, and Indigenous women are six times more likely to be killed than non Indigenous women. “[Indigenous women] are the demographic most at risk of stranger assaults and the demographic most likely to be targeted by white men,” says Lalonde, who believes working to end violence against women goes hand in hand with repairing the damage inflicted by colonialism. “They are intrinsically linked. We need increased funding for organizations working with [Indigenous] survivors in rural, remote and Northern communities where populations are low but risk factors are high.”

So often, we hear ‘Oh, she fell through the cracks,’ but how many times are women going to have to fall through the cracks and end up dead?

Early in the pandemic, Martin and her small team were called on by the federal government to distribute $36 million in emergency funding to shelters across the country. It was an unusual event since Women’s Shelters Canada isn’t normally a funding organization and the federal government doesn’t usually fund shelters. (Most provincial governments provide regular funding for shelters.) On April 30, 2021, Martin’s organization created The National Action Plan on Violence Against Women and Gender Based Violence, which they delivered to the federal government. According to the National Action Plan website, the plan answers the question “What will it take to achieve a Canada that’s free of gender-based violence?” “We need to address the systems that continue to make it so difficult for women to leave violent situations; those systems need to be coordinated across the provinces and territories, and this is where we need federal leadership,” says Martin. “So often, we hear ‘Oh, she fell through the cracks,’ but how many times are women going to have to fall through the cracks and end up dead?”

When Lalonde is asked who is most at risk of getting into an abusive relationship, her answer is both sad and strikingly simple. “Any woman or girl who dates men—regardless of her background, self-esteem or assertiveness,” she says. “What puts women at risk of being in an abusive relationship is being in the presence of a man who chooses to use violence.”

*Name has been changed.

If you or someone you know needs help, sheltersafe.ca offers a directory of all the shelters in Canada and Ending Violence Association of Canada (endingviolencecanada.org) offers a comprehensive list of support services.

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