There are a lot of numbers out there about the shocking rates of gender-based violence in Canada. Like the number six: as in every six days a woman in Canada is killed by her partner. Or 12: the percentage increase in domestic disturbance calls we saw in the first four months of the pandemic. Or 6,000: the number of women and children sleeping in shelters on any given night because it’s not safe to go home.
The federal government is investing $100 million to help women affected by COVID, some of which will be directed towards this cause. But money is only a small part of the equation. There needs to be a national conversation about eradicating this crisis, especially when many shelters are full, frontline workers supporting these efforts are underpaid, and there’s no end in sight to the pandemic. We spoke to Monsef from her basement home office in Peterborough to ask her how to end gender-based violence once and for all.
How concerned are you about the fact that domestic violence has increased exponentially during COVID?
Even before, this was a significant issue for Canadians, a matter of health and safety, a matter of criminal justice. COVID has just exacerbated it. The biggest concern that we, the federal government, and every partner that we’re working with across the country, have is [helping] those who do not come forward and get the support that they need. We knew, based on all the research on natural disasters and other disasters, that the rates were going to go up [during the pandemic] in Canada. Gender-based violence is entirely preventable. Our first step is to prevent these tragedies from happening in the first place. Violence against women is deeply rooted and it requires a series of interventions from individuals, from families, from institutions, and from governments.
Gender-based violence is entirely preventable. Our first step is to prevent these tragedies from happening in the first place. Violence against women is deeply rooted, and it requires a series of interventions from individuals, from families, and institutions and governments.
How do we do that in the middle of a pandemic?
We’ve done that through a variety of partnerships and investments, anything that enhances women’s economic security. The Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), for example, the wage subsidy, the caregivers’ benefit — anything that ensures that women are not trapped because the prospect of poverty makes a big difference [in whether or not someone can leave]. Within the first 48 hours of COVID, my team and I got on the phone with as many of our partners as we could. We reached out across the country and said, “be ready for the rates to go up and make sure the shelters and sexual assault centres are safe, that staff is paid, and that doors remain open. ”
At the start of the pandemic, Statistics Canada reported that one in 10 women were extremely concerned about domestic abuse during lockdown. Almost a year later, we hardly hear anything about it. Why is it so hard to get public support of intimate partner violence?
It’s happened behind closed doors for so long. There was a stigma associated with it for so long. More and more, as survivors find their courage and the rest of us draw courage from them, we start to have these really important conversations. #MeToo. Time's Up. The Women's Marches. They create other opportunities to have this discussion. The more people tell these stories, the hope is that there’s dialogue about what’s not okay.
Gender-based violence is entirely preventable. Our first step is to prevent these tragedies from happening in the first place.
Talking about being behind closed doors, dating has moved from public to private spaces during COVID, putting people in riskier situations. We know the vast majority of assaults go unreported. What can we do to reduce the shame around violence and dating right now?
The most helpful person in the life of someone who’s experienced violence and abuse is the person who says, “I’m here for you,” the person who takes the time to check in on that individual who is at risk of harm, whether it’s through telephone or FaceTime or safely doing a porch visit. The Canadian Women's Foundation came up with their signal for help.
Our brothers, our fathers, the men in our lives also play a really big role in all this and we know many who want to be part of the solution. There is a spectrum of norms that lead to a culture where gender-based violence is so pervasive. This idea of rape culture, right? It starts with jokes and comments made that go unchecked. There are all sorts of ways of devaluing and disrespecting women and gender-diverse folks. Families and friends make the big difference by deciding not to be a bystander, to having a courageous conversation, and respectfully calling it out. Gender-based violence is a shadow pandemic, it happens more often behind closed doors and those few trusted friends and family members unfortunately have to carry a really big responsibility in supporting those who are at risk of harm.
Prime Minister Trudeau has said that Canada’s COVID recovery plan will be a feminist one. In your opinion, what must this plan include?
Nothing traps women more than poverty. And so, when our government talks about the shecession, when we talk about how women have been hardest hit by COVID, we have got to make sure we get them back to work. We will not get Canada’s economic security back if we don’t address people’s personal security, personal health, and safety.
If women can’t leave their kids at home, if they don't have someone they trust to look after them, they will not usually go back to work. So ensuring that that early learning and childcare is universal, affordable, quality, and feasible is a really big part of the plan. The other critical piece is ensuring that those on the frontline of GBV care have the capacity they need to continue their important work. Those frontline organizations are a particular concern of mine. Beyond that, the prime minister and the finance minister are also convening a women’s economic recovery task force.
A lot of us hear the term “task force” and think, What does a task force accomplish?
I would rather have a government who’s willing to listen to experts than a government who just goes ahead and does things without the evidence and without having the right people at the table. If there’s anything I’ve learned from Black leaders, Indigenous leaders, racialized folks, persons with disabilities and exceptionalities, rural Canadians, young people, elders, it’s: “nothing for us without us.”
What should Canadians know about accessing a safe place during COVID?
The emergency phone number is on the Status of Women in Canada website. But the best thing to do is trust someone, talk to them, and reach out to one of these organizations. Over the past few years, I have met almost every single executive director from these organizations. These are smart, thoughtful, caring professionals, and they want to help.
We know this has been a really difficult time for women, how are you holding up?
I am staying home a lot. I’m in this basement a lot. I FaceTime my nieces and my partner. And I’ve got an amazing team. We wake up every day with a sense of purpose. We’re adjusting to telework like so many. I have it better than many and it’s truly an honour to serve my community and my country at a time like this.
This interview has been edited and condensed from its original transcription.
If you are experiencing domestic violence, please visit the Ending Violence Association of Canada to find a local hotline. In the event of an emergency, call 911.