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File photo of woman wearing face mask during coronavirus outbreak. (Credit: UNSPLASH/Engin Akyurt)

by Nandika Ravi 

A new survey conducted by women’s shelters across Canada demonstrates that crisis calls and requests for admittance into shelters have increased during the course of the pandemic. The “Shelter Voices” survey suggests that more than half  (52 %) of 266 participating shelters reported women were experiencing some kind of violence as public health measures were being put in place to control the Covid-19 virus.

“This violence is increasing in many cases and it is also impacting people’s ability to seek help,” said Andrea Gunraj from Women’s Shelter Canada.  She said that on an average, a woman is killed every six days by an intimate partner.  Due to the pandemic and its stressors such as job losses, emotional support and financial stability, gender based violence has further increased.

Data from Shelter-Voices survey

Respondents from the survey say that crisis calls and requests for support increased as the lockdown measures went into effect in March, and the number rose slightly as the lockdown measures eased in the months between June- October 2020. During the lockdown, it was difficult for women to reach out for help and felt reluctant to leave their homes and come into shelters as they feared contracting Covid-19. This left them feeling helpless while wanting to leave an abusive home, according to comments from the survey.  Chief among victims’ fears were that the abuser was monitoring their devices and movements, or they could potentially become homeless during the pandemic.

Data from Shelter-Voices survey

Gender-based violence can be seen in many forms, most commonly noticed as physical abuse. But Gunraj reiterated that gender-based violence can be emotional, financial and even sexual assault. One such victim was Maya*,  who arrived in Canada 6 years ago through a sponsor. Little did she know that her sponsor would be a perpetrator; he started sexually abusing her under the pretext of giving her status in Canada.

“Every day I spent with this man, (he) was raping me and I could not do anything because I did not have papers in Canada, because he was my sponsor and I do not have anywhere to go,” Maya told OMNI reporter Mai Mazloum.

“I do not have any right to get any aid from countries even though I submitted complaints to the police and I thought that there is more justice in this country and that women have rights here, but this is not true. No one helped me.”
Maya moved out of her abuser’s house for a brief period into shelters, but had to keep going back since her sponsor withheld all documentation and she couldn’t fight back. Maya then went on to seek humanitarian asylum in Canada, but discovered that it can take up to 38 months for asylum to be granted.
“I have been living in the shelter for a year, then they asked me to leave, I had no choice but to go back to my ex-husband, even though he was an aggressor, “Maya asaid.
Canada approved Maya’s asylum request; now she is now battling for full custody of her son.
“How does the judge rule the right to custody equally between me and him while he is accused of sexual assault and there are reports with the police proving this? I thought that the laws protect women and children more than that,” Maya said.
Gunraj from Women’s Shelter Canada said that it all depends on the underlying need for control and misogynistic behaviors that surface during stressful situations, such as a pandemic.
“First step for us is to recognize that this violence is not inevitable,” she said.
“We can do something to change behaviors and attitudes. Like how people have adapted to the pandemic by putting on masks, keeping 6 feet apart. The same way we need to invest in changing culture and policies that are toxic for women in Canada.”
(*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the victim.)