The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated incidences of intimate partner violence (IPV), with global reports indicating that rates of IPV have tripled in multiple regions.
IPV specific service agencies in Toronto have seen an increase of more than 50 cases per day. This demand is mirrored in mobile helplines, such as the Assaulted Women’s Helpline, which has reported a quadrupling of daily calls. At least nine women and girls across Canada have been killed in what are believed to be domestic homicides in just over a month during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to multiple media reports.
However, while reported rates of IPV are commonly associated with physical abuse, other forms of IPV trauma are currently manifested.
Financial abuse, such as the unauthorized control over monetary assets and emotional abuse, including manipulation, intimidation and verbal assault, have been overshadowed in discussions on the effects of COVID-19. While these forms of abuse don’t typically come to mind, they often act as precursors to physical violence. Developing an understanding of these forms of IPV can assist in early detection and intervention and interrupt the cycle of violence before devastating harm occurs.
For families in which the perpetrator is the sole wage earner, COVID-19 has significantly increased the risk of financial abuse and may result in limiting money for groceries or health expenses or forcing some to engage in unsafe practices to earn income.
For many IPV victims, daily-life activities, such as sending children to school or having partners go to work, help maintain a sense of security and safety. The increased tensions as a result of economic and health insecurity added to mandatory isolation create conditions for abuse that would have developed over the long term in normal periods.
The impacts on the mental health and well-being of victims of IPV during COVID-19 can be long-lasting. Extensive periods of emotional and financial abuse not only result in increased mental health issues with associated consequences such as depression or suicide among mothers but can also lead to life-long challenges for children and young adults.
Groups such as Peer 2 Peer Consultants, run by individuals with lived experience of domestic violence who partner with institutions to develop evidence-based IPV solutions, advocate for the removal of stereotypes that identify IPV as women-focused. While women are the victims of the majority of reported cases, there are many factors that affect the reporting of abuse. IPV is present across all genders, levels of socioeconomic status and races. This lack of understanding leads to excluding victims who identify as men, meaning they face significant barriers in accessing IPV-specific services. Developing a greater understanding of the unique needs of all will assist in redistributing necessary resources to effectively address consequences of IPV. Pandemic preparedness and its associated protocols are no exception.
The stringent protocols in healthcare settings as a result of COVID-19 present unique opportunities for IPV-specific solutions. The limited access to hospitals and emergency room allows for healthcare workers to assess potential IPV cases among women and children. Areas such as postpartum wards, where partners leave the hospital at night, provide opportunities for safe conversations. IPV-specific training for healthcare workers would allow for increased screening during this time. Discrete programs such as the Signal for Health Campaign that urges the use of hand-signaling to indicate IPV during telemedicine calls should be implemented widely and maintained even after the pandemic.
As well, rehabilitation should be expanded to include perpetrators of IPV rather than only its victims. Adding efforts on rehabilitation for perpetrators will allow programs to address underlying factors that contribute to the continued rise in IPV. If we don’t work on healing this part of the problem, we will never win the fight against IPV.
Ultimately, IPV-specific initiatives must focus on interrupting the cycle of violence for all. IPV was present in our communities long before COVID-19 and without proper, well-informed action, will be present long after.