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As Canada embarks on shelter-in-place, what will it do about the domestic violence and femicide which become more visible under emergency conditions?
Since France went into lockdown on 17th March, recorded cases of domestic violence have leapt by 30 percent. In the UK, which is only in the second week of self-isolation, police are beginning to classify domestic violence cases as directly connected to the pandemic. China saw a threefold increase in recorded incidents. This pattern is repeated across those countries which have resorted to isolation to curb the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.
For some women and their children, confinement at home with an abusive man poses a more direct and immediate threat to life than COVID-19. In addition to adding triggers for male violence, self-isolation policies limit women's ability to escape the situation in time. One refuge worker said "the stark reality is that for those of us working in the sector, right now it feels like we are having to watch our clients through a window." There is not much they can do, from self-isolation, to help.
In three separate incidents in Britain, five women and two children have died, with their husbands and fathers suspected or charged, since the imposition of self-isolation. In South Wales, a man has been charged with killing his wife Ruth Williams, 67. In South Yorkshire, a man has been charged with stabbing his wife to death in the street. Victoria Woodhall was 31 years old, a mother-of-three and a nurse. In Hertfordshire, Caroline Walker, 50, and her daughter Katie, 24, were killed by their husband and father, who then committed suicide. In Sussex, a father, mother, two children and a dog, were also found dead.
The pandemic, and governmental self-isolation policies are undoubtedly sources of pressure. However, woman are not being charged with, or suspected of, killing male partners or children during lockdown. Men are, and this is a continuation of the male pattern violence observed outside times of international emergency.
Self-isolation means that women have less privacy and breathing space in which to seek help from women's services, or from friends and relatives. Children are not at school, and are without safeguarding oversight, and sometimes lacking even a decent meal. Violent men are confined with the family members they abuse, without work or socialising taking them elsewhere.
In France, the women who seek help to escape from violent male partners comprise an estimated 20% of the total number subjected to male violence. Under lockdown conditions in Australia, there were 75% more Google searches for domestic violence refuges than prior to the implementation of that policy. The Australian government has set aside funding to increase provision of these vital services.
Karen Ingala-Smith of Counting Dead Women disagrees that coronavirus causes an increase in domestic abuse. Instead, she says, the pandemic merely reveals how many women are already living with abusive men, figures which are invisible to all but those working in the women's sector outside times of national emergency.
Everyone is impacted by the stress of isolation, financial pressure, and general socio-economic uncertainty. However, only some men feel entitled to abuse or even kill their partners, and this marks domestic violence out as a separate issue. In England, boxer Billy Joe Saunders posted a video about how to stop a woman talking by using extreme physical violence.
So, what can government do to mitigate the increased risk of harm to women living with a potential killer? France and Spain have lead the way with initiatives to enable women to sound the alarm when they visit a pharmacy. In England, delivery people, already on the front lines of this crisis, have been asked to spot and report signs of abuse.
In England, domestic violence refuge workers are now included in the list of key workers who can still take their children to school while they perform vital services. However, refuges are underfunded, and there are legitimate questions about whether it should fall solely to charities to prevent women's deaths. It has been suggested that police should visit homes with prior reports of domestic abuse, to check how the inhabitants are doing under lockdown in order to prevent an escalating pandemic of male violence.
Canada should take note from what is happening in countries ahead of it as the virus rolls through, and act now to ensure such women and children are protected. Nobody wants to see a return to the days when male violence in the family home was considered a private, hidden matter. The male pattern violence which the pandemic has exposed should be held firmly in view so that no woman or child is left without refuge.