An unsettling consequence of the necessity for people to stay home during the COVID-19 pandemic is an increase in gender-based domestic violence and abuse.

There is evidence that disaster situations, like pandemics, are linked to increases in partner violence as well as sexual and emotional abuse, as found in research by the International Red Cross Foundation. Women, girls and trans and non-binary people are at highest risk of experiencing this abuse. A recent survey of 4,600 Canadians by Statistics Canada suggested that one in 10 Canadian women is very or extremely concerned about the possibility of violence in the home.

According to the Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses (OAITH), 20 percent of their organizations have experienced an increase in calls since the COVID-19 pandemic began. In Vancouver, Battered Women’s Support Services say their staff have seen a 300 percent increase in calls over the last three weeks. Nisa Homes, a transitional home for Muslim and immigrant women and children with locations across the Greater Toronto Area as well as in Windsor, Ontario and British Columbia, say their calls have doubled over the last few weeks, from 200 weekly calls to 400.

In response to this alarming increase, the Canadian Women’s Foundation (CWF) has launched the Signal for Help initiative – a one-handed sign anyone can use over video to indicate they require assistance.

The signal is the symbolic entrapment of the thumb in the palm. While some people are able to connect with others outside their home via text, email or video chat, those with abusive partners are often being monitored on their devices, making a vocal statement or text for help more dangerous than a silent signal.

“Public health directives on home isolation compound the danger for those living in abusive situations, and abusers may monitor their devices to ensure that what is going on inside the home is not shared,” said Paulette Senior, president and CEO of the Canadian Women’s Foundation, in a statement. “This new reality requires new methods of communication to help those facing gender-based violence. We know that internet and video calling are not readily accessible to some. Shelters and support services are doing everything they can to respond to the surge in violence. Signal for Help seeks to contribute to these efforts.”

There are ways to help if you see the signal or know someone who is experiencing violence at home. The CWF suggests calling and asking questions that can be answered with “yes” or “no” (like “Would you like me to call 911?” or “Would you like me to call a shelter on your behalf?”), asking general questions over text, email or social media (like “How are you doing?” or “How can I help you out?”) and simply asking how you can support them.

More information on Signal for Help can be found here.

If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, call 911 or your local emergency services (police, fire, ambulance).


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