violence against women domestic femicide COVID-19 pandemic

Violence against women: the pandemic within the pandemic

The March 8 Collective and Liberal opposition are asking the CAQ to make good on promises to help women who are suffering.

A year into this global pandemic, COVID-19 has affected us all in both small and deeply profound ways. But women have been particularly hit, paying a higher price in terms of job losses, increased caregiving responsibilities, mental stress and, in many cases, paying with their own lives.

Five Quebec women were murdered over the past few weeks alone. The latest victims were a mother and daughter in Saint-Sophie, 28-year-old Myriam Dallaire and her mother 60-year-old Sylvie Bisson, who were brutally hacked to death with an axe by the daughter’s ex-boyfriend. Myriam and Sylvie were just the latest femicides in our province. They will certainly not be the last.

While I deeply appreciated Premier François Legault addressing the murders at his daily presser and imploring men to take on a more active role in denouncing such violence, his public condemnation is not enough.

By calling the murderer’s actions “barbaric” Premier Legault is also qualifying the perpetrator as an “uncivilized” exception, someone who is somehow not “part of our society.” But he is one of us and what he did is very much a part of this country’s and this province’s daily reality. Approximately every six days, a woman in Canada is killed by her intimate partner. These are women fleeing toxic and violent relationships, women killed in murder-suicides and girls murdered to exact revenge on a separated spouse. Those annual numbers, tallied up by women’s organizations every year, represent a lot of women dying but, most importantly, they represent a lot of men killing.

The Canadian Femicide Observatory provides an annual list of femicides, and it’s never easy to read the names and circumstances of their deaths. Nearly half of the cases always involve extreme violence. I still remember reading about one woman who was stabbed 175 times — which advocates described as “overkilling.” I’m not quite sure how someone “overkills” someone, but I do know the result is always the same. A needless death, violence that escalates into murder, a life lost, family and friends and sometimes children left grieving and looking for answers, politicians denouncing and promising, the endless repetition of advocates and pundits writing about the topic with only one certainty — that they will soon be writing about it again.

Pandemic has exacerbated the situation

The pandemic has only made things worse. Lockdowns have left victims isolated and forced them to shelter inside for long periods of time, sometimes 24/7, in dangerous proximity to their abusers, with a night-time curfew and constant public health restrictions preventing a release valve of any kind. The Centre for Global Health and Social Responsibility has called the global-wide increase in gender-based violence “a pandemic within a pandemic.”

Domestic violence stems from a desire to gain and maintain power and control over a partner. Abusive people believe they have the right to control their partners’ lives. Studies have shown that the less control abusers have over their own lives, the more inclined they are to abuse and pull rank on what little control they do have. Calgary police reported an increase in domestic violence in the wake of Alberta’s economic downturn, while a similar link between an increase in domestic violence and the provincial economy was noted in Newfoundland.

It’s not a surprise, then, that in the context of a global pandemic that’s resulted in severe job losses, mental distress and strict government directives to obey public-health guidelines or face major fines, many people who feel powerless and scared are lashing out in destructive and violent patterns. Their partners make for easy targets.

Quebec women’s groups unsatisfied

Members of the March 8 Collective (le Collectif 8 mars), which represents more than 700,000 women in Quebec, met the Quebec Minister responsible for the Status of Women, Isabelle Charest, last week to discuss the impacts of the pandemic on women. In a press release, representatives of the collective expressed their disappointment with the meeting. They expected a formal commitment from the minister to take concrete measures to help women experiencing violence but say they did not get one. While the minister has recognized the impact of the pandemic, the collective is questioning the government’s willingness to take concrete actions beyond rhetoric.

Women’s shelters in Quebec have been sounding the alarm for a while now. They say they are overwhelmed and ill-equipped to handle the increase in abusive situations. They are pleading with the province for more funds to build more shelters, create more safety nets, provide more resources to women fleeing dangerous situations. During a recent interview on LCN, Liberal MNA Isabelle Melançon, the official opposition spokesperson for the Status of Women, said that money promised in the CAQ’s budget for these shelters and resources has yet to materialize. “75% of domestic abuse victims who show up at a shelter will be turned away because they’re at full capacity,” she told journalist Paul Larocque. So, while a public denouncement by Premier Legault is appreciated, Jerry Maguire’s Rod Tidwell would be more inclined to say, “Show me the money!”

Domestic abuse is a gendered crime

Finally, I’ll go ahead and pre-empt the predictable comments from those never interested in violence against men, until a woman writes about violence against women. All domestic violence is wrong. Men can be victims, too. But there are important differences between male violence against women and female violence against men, namely the severity, frequency and impact. Women are far more likely to experience repeated victimization in the form of physical, emotional and sexual violence, and far more likely to be severely injured or killed by their partner.

And while all women are at risk, some women are in a far more precarious state. Indigenous women are 12 times more likely to be murdered or missing than other women in Canada, and studies have shown that when BIPOC women report violence, their experiences are often taken less seriously, and their perpetrators receive punishments that are not as harsh.

So, while the pandemic has affected us all, emerging data and those working directly at the frontline in women’s shelters tell us it has disproportionately affected women in vulnerable situations.

As vaccines start providing us with some light at the end of this long and tumultuous tunnel, our collective goal as a society should not only be to ensure that everyone individually survives the pandemic, but to make sure that those who are most vulnerable also do, too. ■

If you’re living in fear of violence or are worried for someone close to you, you can call 1-800-363-9010 (24/7), text at 438-601-1211, or search for more information (in 27 different languages) here.

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.