When home isn't safe: How coronavirus puts neighbours on front lines of abuse

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The phone rings less than it used to at the London Abused Women’s Centre.

The calls that do come through are often quick and concerning, with women warning the support worker that if their abuser comes in from the backyard or gets out of the shower, they’ll have to hang up with little to no warning.

“We do literally 10 seconds of safety planning, say call back whenever you can, and then they hang up,” says Megan Walker, the centre’s executive director. She is worried, and you can hear it in her voice.

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Across the country, support centres and shelters are grappling with the same heartbreaking problem: how to help someone be safe when they have been told to isolate at home but their home isn’t safe.

Add in children and the sometimes very small confines of an apartment, and “things are really brewing and bubbling,” Walker says. “I’m just so worried about increases in violence and femicide.”

There is reason to be worried.

“Times of social isolation increase the risk of domestic abuse,” according to the European Institute for Gender Equality, which also noted that even once the worst of the COVID-19 outbreak subsides, life doesn’t just snap back to normal.

“It can also be harder for women to leave their abuser once the crisis is over, due to the financial insecurity that might follow.”

Schools are closed, libraries are closed and community centres are closed. In Ontario, where Walker works, only essential services remain open.

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Those closures have an important impact on stopping the spread of the new coronavirus, wrote lawyer Pamela Cross for The Lawyer’s Daily, but “some of them play right into the hands of many abusers.”

Domestic abuse is about power and control, something an abuser has more of when their victim is forced to isolate at home — which, as Cross wrote, means an increase in “opportunities for physical, sexual and emotional abuse.”

That negative impact will likely only get worse as time goes on, says Petra Molnar, acting director of the international human rights program at the University of Toronto.

So far, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has earmarked $50 million for women’s shelters and sexual assault centres grappling with the spread of COVID-19 and their support work.

Generally speaking, Molnar says offering solutions is “tough because it highlights how limited our societal supports are for people going through domestic violence.”

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Those support gaps can be felt even more keenly when the person experiencing abuse is also part of a more marginalized community, Molnar says, like refugees and immigrants.

That’s an intersection Natalia Jiménez, a Colombian refugee whose partner tried to kill her after moving to Canada, spoke with Global News about last fall.

Jiménez struggled with the language barrier, a lack of understanding of Canadian policies and laws and issues accessing support services and alternative housing options in addition to pressure within her community not to report the abuse she faced.

“I kept quiet and endured,” she said.

Jiménez and Sonya Cywink, an Ojibway woman whose murder remains unsolved 25 years later, were the two honourees for last year’s Shine the Light campaign organized by the London Abused Women’s Centre.

The campaign has been revived this spring to highlight the role neighbours and community members can play in helping people escape abuse during COVID-19 isolation, Walker says.

Community involvement is a point she wants to underscore.

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A woman might only have a few minutes for a stolen phone call while her abuser is in the yard. And while Walker says that might be enough for a little bit of safety planning, it’s still wholly inadequate; the support worker on the other end often can’t offer an immediate shelter bed or hotel space.

As a result, figuring out a safe alternative space to ride out the pandemic can mean time, including back-and-forth calls, that a woman at risk in her own home doesn’t necessarily have.

On the contrary, a conversation with a neighbour on the street — even one with six feet of space in between —  likely wouldn’t arouse as much suspicion.

“If you know somebody that’s isolated or might be struggling, make sure you ask the question: ‘Are you being abused?’” Walker says. “They’re more likely to respond if they’re asked than just to come out (with it) themselves.”

Once you know, you can offer to be the person who more safely co-ordinates calls with shelters and other support services as needed.

“I really believe it will be the neighbours who get women through this,” Walker says, encouraging neighbours to ask: “Are you being abused? Are you safe?”

Community-based responses to gender-based violence are an approach that the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI) uses. It’s of particular importance for racialized and immigrant communities, says Margarita Pintin-Perez, senior co-ordinator of OCASI’s Initiative to End Gender-Based Violence.

Pintin-Perez echoes Walker’s call to community action, particularly now, when people are at home with “no reprieve” from their abuser and the support systems they might usually be able to reach are working remotely.

“Neighbours are definitely important,” she says, encouraging people to check in on those around them, whether it’s saying hello on a walk or dropping letters off in mailboxes saying to text or call if you need anything.

“Those are great gestures, really important because they can be life-saving for someone in these situations,” Pintin-Perez says.

Ultimately, Molnar says it’s important to remember that the COVID-19 outbreak isn’t creating new problems but exacerbating long-standing ones.

Women’s shelters and transition homes, often the starting point for those fleeing violence, are decades old, crumbling from lack of repairs and struggling to finance the life-saving services they provide.

Every day, shelters turn away 379 women and 215 children because of space constraints, according to a 2019 report from Women’s Shelters Canada. The idea of having to turn someone away in the middle of a pandemic is “so unbelievably sad,” says Silvia Samsa, executive director of Women’s Habitat.

Women’s Habitat has a 10-room shelter on the western edge of Toronto that’s been full since mid-March. Already, they’ve shuttered community outreach programs, enacted strict rules around handwashing and hand sanitizer use and done their best to navigate toilet paper shortages when the women they serve don’t have the funds to stockpile toiletries.

“We’re really, really hoping we don’t have to go into quarantine,” Samsa says.

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Molnar is heartened to see how much communities have already stepped up to support victims of domestic abuse amid the pandemic. Still, she says, she wants to be clear that she is in no way advocating for local initiatives as the solution.

“As a society, we need to have a conversation around what our priorities are and what kind of funding and support are we able to provide to the violence against women sector.”

If you think someone is being abused, here is some information on supporting them and additional information on safety planning.

If you think someone is abusive to their partner, here is a list of resources to help.

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© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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