Calls to police for domestic disturbances increased as the coronavirus pandemic took a foothold in Canada, according to new data from Statistics Canada.
Those types of calls are classified as both disturbances or disputes, which can involve anything from a verbal argument to physical violence.
The report found that these calls, in addition to wellbeing checks, each increased by 12 per cent between March and June, compared to last year.
While the increase is what advocates had long feared, police reporting is “just one slice of the picture” when it comes to domestic violence, said Andrea Gunraj of the Canadian Women’s Foundation.
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While the report does not indicate whether the reported domestic disturbances are related to gender-based violence, women and children are often the victims.
Gunraj said those who provide emergency services to survivors of domestic disturbances have tracked an “interesting dynamic” since the pandemic began.
“On one hand, some service providers have seen an increase in crisis calls, but there’s a conspicuous decrease in calls that’s happened over the pandemic as well.”
She described it as a unique “two sides to the coin” situation fueled by lockdowns and stay-at-home orders amid COVID-19.
“Is it that people are experiencing this violence more? Or is it that some people are able to call for help while others are unable because they’re trapped at home with their abusers?” she said.
“Domestic violence is often centered around control and manipulation. So there’s a very real possibility that somebody experiencing this violence doesn’t have the opportunity to step away and make that call.”
When the pandemic began to unravel, women’s advocates were vocal about the risk that isolation and stress caused by COVID-19 could bring to domestic situations.
Canadians were inevitably forced to be at home more between March and June. Many people also found themselves unemployed or under new financial stress — many being women.
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In March, women aged 25 to 54 lost more than twice the jobs than men in the same age group, according to Statistics Canada. As of June, the number of women returning to work was being outpaced by men.
“That increases women’s vulnerability,” said Gunraj.
“Anytime you have someone who’s vulnerable, they’re at a higher risk of violence. Period.”
But the reality is many victims do not report to police, Gunraj added.
“We know things like emotional abuse are not well handled by authorities, they’re not always something that’s reportable,” she said. “We also know what when people call the police, there’s risk associated with that that could worsen the violence.”
Statistics Can uses data from 17 police services in Canada, reflecting 59 per cent of the Canadian population. It is not broken down into demographics, so the gender and race of the possible victims — or those making the calls to police — are not known.
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The numbers highlight an “ongoing gap in the way we deal with this violence,” said Gunraj.
“All these stressors feed into what we’ve been seeing around the gendered impacts of the pandemic,” she said.
“With greater stress comes a greater risk of violence. It doesn’t necessarily mean that stress leads to violence one hundred per cent, but the kind of baseline conditions were always there.”
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Calls to a Vancouver-based crisis line for women experiencing domestic violence jumped 300 per cent over a three-week period in April. In Saskatoon, despite a “surprising” drop when the pandemic first hit, local police reported a 10 per cent increase in domestic violence reports in May.
However, during the same month in Ottawa, police said domestic disputes between partners or family members dropped 23 per cent compared to last year — further emphasizing Gunraj and other advocates’ concerns about incidents going unreported during the pandemic.
Canada isn’t the only country that has seen a rise. Increases in domestic crimes and/or calls to helplines and other services have been reported in the U.K., Spain, Russia, and China.
And it won’t just snap back to normal.
As the European Institute for Gender Equality notes, “it can be harder for women to leave their abuser once the crisis is over, due to the financial insecurity that might follow.”
By contrast, police services reported a decrease in the number of criminal incidents during the first four months of the pandemic.
Of the 13 crime types surveyed, it amounted to a 16 per cent decrease overall, according to the Statistics Canada report.
Broken down, it showed an 11.5 per cent drop in assaults, a 24.7 per cent drop in sexual assaults, a 20.2 per cent drop in robberies, and a 12.9 per cent drop in break-and-enters.
However, the report reiterates that the findings from this data are not fully representative of overall police-reported crime in Canada, as not all of the country’s police services provided numbers.
Reporting also plays a role in some of these numbers, as the vast majority of sexual assaults are not reported to police.
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Women are victimized at a much higher rate than men — 37 incidents per 1,000 women, compared to 5 per 1,000 men, according to Statistics Canada.
Between March and June of this year, sexual assaults by family dropped 17 per cent, non-family 23 per cent, and 33 per cent where the relationship type is unknown.
Advocates say the underfunding of services that cater to women is still a barrier.
“The system is very much cracked,” said Gunraj.
“We need to think about a gendered lens on recovery [from coronavirus]. That includes gender-based violence prevention, child care, universal basic income — poverty is very deeply gendered in Canada. That priority lens on women and intersectionality is really going to be key.”
If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate assistance. For a more comprehensive list of resources, click here.
— With files from the Associated Press
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