As Canadians prepare to observe the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence against Women, frontline organizations are stressing the importance of preventing and reporting violence against women and supporting survivors, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted gaps in the systems designed to keep people safe.
The national day of remembrance and action honours the memory of the women who died during the tragic mass shooting at Polytechnique Montreal on December 6, 1989.
The National Day of Remembrance falls during the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence. The international campaign kicks off annually on Nov. 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and runs until December 10, World Human Rights Day.
The provincial government kicked off the 16 days with a campaign designed to highlight a shared responsibility to shift attitudes and norms that perpetuate interpersonal violence.
“It’s vital for our communities to understand the behaviours that contribute to interpersonal violence,” Justice Minister and Attorney General Gordon Wyant said in a press release. “We must speak up if we suspect that someone is at risk and do everything we can to help them.”
“This campaign features the faces of strong and diverse women, who are slowly covered up by the excuses people around them use to avoid taking action when they see signs of interpersonal violence and abuse,” Minister Responsible for the Status of Women Office Laura Ross said. “These faces represent mothers, daughters, sisters, aunts, nieces, friends – someone we can all relate to – that is why starting the conversation about the impact on Saskatchewan families and communities is critically important.”
The campaign comes at a vital time. Organizations across the country are reporting increases in interpersonal violence as residents are encouraged, and ordered to stay at home. For someone in a violent situation, that means staying in closer contact for longer with their abusers. Organizations have also flagged an increase in mental health concerns such as anxiety and addiction, which can also lead to increases in abuse.
COVID-19 “has created unprecedented challenges for those experiencing gender-based violence and the organizations that provide supports and services to them,” Status of Women Canada writes on their website.
“The stress and anxiety resulting from physical distancing measures was a top concern for many Canadians in early April 2020. One in 10 women reported being very or extremely concerned about the possibility of violence in the home. “
Young women aged 15 to 24 were “substantially more likely” than young men to be very or extremely anxious about violence in the home, Statistics Canada found.
Status of Women said the Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses, a network of more than 70 shelters, reported a 20 per cent increase in demand for admission in March 2020, the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in Canada.
The following month, the Assaulted Women’s helpline of Ontario reported a 400 per cent increase in calls. A British Columbia hotline also reported a 400 per cent increase in calls between April and May of 2020 — of those, 40 per cent were from women isolated with their abuser.
Available Saskatchewan statistics seem to bear out the same story. Data from police services and from Statistics Canada shows spikes in calls for service relating to domestic disturbances and domestic violence. According to Statistics Canada, Saskatoon police reported over 750 calls for service relating to domestic disturbances or disputes in each of May, June, July and August. Several of their calls related to assaults, sexual assaults and uttering threats were identified as involving family violence.
Prince Albert’s police-reported data paints a similar picture.
According to the latest data, Prince Albert Police have seen a 4.72 per cent increase in sexual violations and a 6.45 per cent increase in assault calls so far this year. They also report a 5.85 per cent year-to-date increase in domestic calls for service. There were 221 domestic calls in October alone.
Those increasing numbers indicate that Saskatchewan is seeing an escalation of an already well-documented problem. A report from last December indicated that Saskatchewan had the highest rate of domestic violence among all provinces.
In 2018, Saskatchewan saw 4,763 incidents, or 1,066 per 100,000 people. Saskatchewan also had the highest rate of domestic violence against children and youth — 453 incidents per 100,000 people. Data shows that the more vulnerable someone is, the more likely they are to fall victim to family violence. While men can be victims of domestic violence too, women and girls are more likely to experience violence. Indigenous, lesbian, gay and bisexual people, transgender people, women living with a disability and women living in rural and remote regions are also at greater risk of violence.
Police-reported statistics show that women account for almost eight in ten victims of intimate partner violence.
“Gender-based violence (GBV) continues to have devastating impacts on individuals, families and communities across the country and around the world,” said Canada’s Minister for women and gender equality, Maryam Monsef.
“ It is a violation of human rights and an unacceptable barrier to gender equality. For decades, women and allies have been calling for real action and seeing too little progress. COVID-19 has thrown this issue into an even sharper focus and underscored the urgency of addressing gender-based violence. The pandemic has impacted us all, and for those facing violence, the impacts have been severe. As we put in place important public health measures to prevent the spread of the virus, Canadians were told to stay home and self-isolate– but home is not a safe place for those who experience domestic or family violence.
“This year, we will mark the 16 Days of Activism against gender-based violence differently but with no less importance. We will not be gathering for vigils, we cannot meet in large groups to discuss the next actions to take. But that does not mean we will be silent. On the contrary, now is the time to be louder than ever.”
But while more people might be falling victim to domestic violence, that doesn’t mean more people have been reaching out for help. The YWCA confirmed Friday that they haven’t seen a significant increase in the use of their women’s shelter this year. Chief Executive Officer Donna Brooks said her message for women who might be suffering is to reach out and ask for help.
It’s also up to the rest of us to listen when someone we know asks for help. That’s according to Tracy Knutson, the executive director of Saskatchewan Towards Offering Partnership Solutions (STOPS) to Violence.
“This year is about the theme of all of us,” she said last week during the launch of the province’s new awareness campaign.”All of us are impacted by violence, but it also takes all of us to solve the problem.”
She praised the campaign, as well as the new resources added to 211 Saskatchewan this year.
“We encourage people to check in with each other,” Knutsen said. “To look out for each other. To ask the simple question ‘are you okay’ and to become familiar with the services and programs available in case someone does need help.”
She also said if anyone knows someone who uses violence in their relationships, reaching out could help because often perpetrators of violence are also struggling.
“Some support might change things in that dynamic.”
Only reach out and offer help, she said, if it’s safe to do so. Offering a safe place to stay or a reliable shoulder to lean on can make a big difference.
“It’s important for people to make sure they themselves are safe. Listening to people and believing them when they make a disclosure is important,” Knutsen said.
Work still needs to be done, but the province has been trying. In the past year they’ve introduced Clare’s Law, which allows police to disclose information that could help protect potential victims of interpersonal violence.
They also introduced funding for Parkland Victims Services for personal safety devices for victims of domestic violence and for a domestic violence program to engage the community and build accountability for family violence through the Piwapan Women’s Centre and Lac La Ronge Domestic Violence Committee.
Then, in September, the United Way and the province announced a partnership to expand interpersonal violence supports available through 211. The $421,000 over the next three years will provide staff with additional training on connecting individuals who have experienced interpersonal violence to services in their community, while the content on the 211 webpage was refreshed to make it more user-friendly.
In 2018, about ten per cent of all calls, including text, live chat and email to 211 were related to interpersonal violence. It’s a start, but there’s still more work to be done.
Legislation is in the works to allow victims of sexual assault in their rental home to break their lease without penalty. Last year, the province amended legislation to allow survivors of domestic or sexual violence five days of paid leave and five unpaid days from work to make it easier for victims to take time away to exit a dangerous situation.
The leave allows victims or parents and caregivers of victims time off to seek medical attention, obtain services from a victims’ services organization, obtain psychological or other professional help, relocate and seek legal or law enforcement assistance and attend court.
The changes are, in part, a result of a 2018 report into domestic violence deaths. That report included several recommendations aimed at reducing domestic violence and assisting victims in Saskatchewan.
The full report is available at https://www.saskatchewan.ca/government/news-and-media/2018/may/24/domestic-violence-death-review-report.
The National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence against Women will be held tomorrow.
If you are at risk or in need of assistance, Prince Albert Mobile Crisis sexual assault line is available at 306-764-1039. The crisis intervention line is available at 306-764-1011. If you are in immediate danger, dial 911.
For more information about services available in Saskatchewan, visit sk.211.ca or dial 211. The digital 211 portal includes a quick exit button to quickly switch to Google and instructions on how to clear your browser history.