The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the impact of gender-based violence

Every year in November, the United Nations conducts a 16-day campaign against gender-based violence. It begins on November 25th, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and ends on December 10th, Human Rights Day. This year’s motto is “UNiTE! Activism to end violence against women and girls.”

This theme aims to highlight the impact of COVID-19 on gender-based violence, as well as inequalities in accessible housing, services and resources.

During pandemic lockdowns, women exposed to gender-based violence have found themselves in precarious and dangerous circumstances. Many women affected by violence have had to contend with the prospect of homelessness due to limited housing options.

Gender-based Violence and COVID-19

COVID-19 lockdowns exacerbated the already existing problem of gender-based violence. Families already dealing with violence were no longer able to leave their homes to work, go to school or engage in social activities. This left many women trapped with abusive partners, leading to increased violence against women.

Spaces such as religious gatherings, workplaces, community centers, support groups, and community agencies where women could get respite and support were also no longer easily accessible.

The pandemic has also highlighted wider social gaps and inequalities in access to health care and housing, and poor working conditions. It has had a more severe impact on low-income people – many of whom are women – who are often the first to lose their jobs. This resulted in women falling behind on their rent and having to move in with the family.

Women’s rights activists take part in a demonstration condemning violence against women in Lahore, Pakistan, July 24, 2021.
(AP Photo/KM Chaudhry)

These divisions come as no surprise to women and children fleeing violence. Research and the experiences of those fighting gender-based violence have shown that women face multiple challenges in accessing social services and support.

Raised women, in particular, face unique vulnerabilities that increase their risk of violence and access to services. These include restrictive immigration laws and racial profiling. Exploring the relationship between COVID-19 and gender-based violence is key to understanding women’s experiences. The experiences of survivors of gender-based violence need to be understood from an intersectional approach.

The housing shortage

Financial dependency and an increasingly unaffordable housing market put women and children fleeing violence in a dangerous position. Housing costs have skyrocketed in many major cities. The average monthly rent across Canada is more than $2,000 per month.

Many women face the difficult decision of staying with abusive partners or family members. One issue many women struggling to support their children have raised is choosing between buying groceries and paying rent.

As housing becomes increasingly unaffordable, women fleeing violence struggle to find safe housing. This puts women at risk and puts them back at the mercy of their abusers.

Across Canada, women are staying longer in emergency shelters. In Nova Scotia, for example, there is limited funding for phase two housing, which assists women in the transition from temporary housing to permanent housing.

People gather near a rock with the inscription: Women's Monument.
People attend a vigil at the Women’s Memorial in Petawawa, Ontario to commemorate Carol Culleton, Nathalie Warmerdam and Anastasia Kuzyk. The three women were murdered by Basil Borutski, a man who had a known history of violence against women.

Abuse survivors in Canada are given priority on public housing waitlists based on a special priority criterion. This criterion includes leaving abusive relationships within 90 days and proof of cohabitation. But waiting times for social housing are long and these criteria do not apply to everyone.

As a result, many women remain in unhealthy and abusive households because they cannot afford to live anywhere else. Women’s and children’s shelters often turn women and children away because of a lack of beds. Those who make it into shelters in Canada have longer stays.

Many survivors live in risky shelters but are considered safe because they no longer live with their perpetrators. Survivors choose temporary placement options to protect the life, stability, and well-being of their children, meet basic needs, and avoid child welfare authorities. This results in survivors being left homeless or at risk of returning to their abusers.

Survivors also face challenges when requesting the help they need. The need for virtual meetings and application processes during the pandemic posed new challenges for access to social housing applications.

Due to limited access to the internet, computers, skill gaps, and use of shared devices, some survivors cannot safely and privately seek help and fill out applications at home.

Exploring the intersections between systemic oppression and women’s vulnerability is crucial. The 16 Days of Activism is a call for all levels of government to address the housing gap and gender-based violence.

Building affordable housing, increasing access to subsidized housing, and raising benefit rates are some sustainable solutions to the chronic cycle of homelessness faced by women fleeing violence.

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