Key Impacts Of COVID-19 Pandemic On Gender-Based Violence

Written by: Farrah Khan and Kelsy Vivash

It is easy to assume that our work on campuses to address and prevent gender-based violence will lessen as students return home to self-isolate, however, the reality is that home is not always a safe place for everyone. We saw this tragically unfold in Nova Scotia where a mass murder of 22 people began with acts of intimate partner violence. The Courage to Act project team is deeply concerned about the ways in which many students, staff and faculty face increased risks of gender-based violence under the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to a Statistics Canada survey, 1 of 10 Canadian women say they are “very or extremely concerned” about the possibility of violence inside the home during the pandemic. Young women between the ages of 15 – 24 “were significantly more likely to report that they were very or extremely anxious about the possibility of violence in the home.” Violence against women services are reporting spikes in calls for help: in Ontario, some shelters have seen their calls double while in Vancouver, Battered Women’s Support Services report that calls have increased by 300% since isolation procedures began. The Kids’ Help Phone is reporting a 112% spike in calls related to physical violence in the home. In addition to this, widespread job loss has meant that financial barriers to escaping abuse are currently heightened.  This, too, is gendered: out of the 1 million jobs lost in Canada during the month of March, 61% belonged to women.  In addition, a majority (53%) of 2SLGBTQI+ households have been affected by lay-offs and reduced hours as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. This compares to 39% of overall Canadian households.

The increased reporting of gender-based violence is reflected across the globe, as well.  We know that in China, the number of domestic violence cases reported to the local police tripled in February compared to the same time period last year; Brazilian domestic violence drop-in centers have seen a 50% spike in clients; and Italy has reported a surge in desperate texts and emails to support centers.  Moreover, not all violence in the home is perpetrated from one intimate partner to another: Unicef has indicated that during previous public health emergencies that resulted in isolation procedures and school closures, there have been significant spikes in child labour, neglect, and sexual abuse.

With so many trusted sources telling us that we should stay “safe at home,” it’s easy to forget that home is not always a safe place.  It is critical that we examine what gender-based violence looks like during a global pandemic so that we can continue to be vigilant in our work towards ending it. Courage to Act worked with community partners to assemble a list of the ways gender-based violence is enacted and exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Key Impacts of COVID-19 Pandemic on Gender-Based Violence in Canada

Thank you Sidrah Ahmad-Chan, Pamela Cross, Bailey Reid and Sarah Scanlon for putting together this list with us.

*Please note: below is a list of ways that violence can manifest at this time. However, we know that this is not an exhaustive list. Our intention is to highlight particular ways that gender-based violence can show up during this specific pandemic in Canada.

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  • Physical, Emotional and Sexual Abuse: threatening to or actually forcing the victim into situations where they are at increased risk of infection; using “stress of the pandemic” as an excuse for abuse; threatening to abandon partner if they become ill, or in an attempt to expose them to the virus

  • Isolation: forced confinement under the guise of self-isolation; monitoring and controlling phone and/or online activity to withhold connection to family, friends, and social services.  For children, restricting connection with teachers or other supportive adults to whom they could disclose the abuse.

  • Harassment: imposing close proximity to victim to threaten infection or infect them; spreading salacious rumours about the victim including about their medical status; entering into online community spaces to harass and degrade members i.e. “Zoom-bombing”.

  • Online Sexual Violence: Pressuring the someone to send nudes; sending unsolicited nudes; non-consensually recording a someone in compromising scenarios or doing so without their knowledge.

  • Racism: making anti-immigrant, anti-Asian slurs related to COVID-19 pandemic; threatening or carrying out emotional, sexual, physical or financial retaliation for the assumption that the spread of COVID-19 is connected to a racial group; referring to the virus by an ethnic/racial name, refusing service to and/or barring racialized communities from access service.

  • Homophobia and Transphobia: forced ‘outing’ of the victim, particularly to intolerant people with whom the victim may be isolated; restricting access to clothing or care/grooming items that affirm the victim’s gender identity; threatening violence or enacting violence as a response to someone’s gender identity and sexuality.

  • Financial Abuse: withholding family assets; taking paycheque; refusing to purchase necessities; not allowing the victim to work or forcing them to work in unsafe conditions,  landlords are preying on tenants’ financial stress by demanding sex in lieu of paying rent.

  • Withhold, Misuse or Delay Needed Supports: restricting access to medical supplies, testing, personal protective equipment (PPE), and hand sanitizer; withholding access to health benefits or insurance; cutting off mental health supports/therapy that has shifted to online formats

  • Abusing Family Law: refusing to follow custody and access orders; using the threat of COVID-19 to alienate co-parent or restrict their access to children altogether; refusing to leave the matrimonial home, refusing to follow restraining orders, not making court ordered support payments

  • Child Abuse: threatening to or actually emotionally, physically, sexually abusing children or denying necessities of life; threatening to or actually forcing children into situations where the risk of infection is increased; isolating children from online supports and connections available through schools

  • Spreading Misinformation: withholding access to accurate information in order to maintain power and control; lying about COVID status in order to control the victim; presenting misinformation about COVID symptoms in order to convince the victim that they are infected

  • Stalking: taking advantage of safety measures (victim is sheltering in place; has limited connection to other people) to escalate physical stalking; using technology to track the behaviour of victim; gaining access to email/social media accounts to read messages or learn personal information

Factors Contributing to Gender-Based Violence during COVID-19 Pandemic in Canada 

  • Job loss: financial insecurity might cause people to return to or stay with partners who have been abusive because of financial worries. .

  • Increased Isolation: intimate partner violence is exacerbated when abusers have exclusive and private access to their victims often in close quarters and with loss of regular routines. Forced isolation can go unnoticed during sweeping, mandated isolation.  Signs of abuse are hidden from others when the victim is isolated at home, and the victim may not be able to see family and friends who could otherwise offer support.

  • State Control and Violence: using Emergency Measures to further target vulnerable groups for police intervention; keeping migrants and prisoners in high-risk, high-occupancy detention centers; withholding information from detained people; state-sponsored eugenics through “decisions” about who is more worthy of care; providing emergency relief to some groups, but not others, i.e. Indigenous communities, sex workers, migrant workers, people in certain types of precarious work.

  • Limited Access to Community Supports: people facing violence have fewer resources available to enable them to leave abusive situations. Limited access to informal (e.g., schools, neighbours)  and formal (e.g. police, emergency rooms) supports, and monitoring options (e.g. judicial intervention). Access to public transportation is limited or unsafe, making escape much more difficult.

  • Family Confined to the Home: threats involving children are more immediate when children are confined at home. Supportive adult conversations are now monitored because they are online/on the phone, or supportive adults may be cut off altogether.

  • Limited Access to Court Systems: abusers may take advantage of court closures to violate custody arrangements

  • Heightened Harmful Coping: perpetrators coping skills include substance abuse and increases in mental health issues, which are in turn associated with increased risk of violence perpetration


Suggested Citation: Khan, Farrah., & Vivash, Kelsy. (2020, April). Key Impacts of COVID-19 Pandemic on Gender-Based Violence. Courage to Act.

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