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Dalhousie co‑led study shows COVID‑19 pandemic increased violence against women and strained supportive services

Posted by Kate Rogers with files from the Canadian Housing Evidence Collaborative on June 21, 2022 in News
Dr. Alexa Yakubovich is co-leading a study that has found women experienced more frequent, and often more severe violence during the pandemic.
Dr. Alexa Yakubovich is co-leading a study that has found women experienced more frequent, and often more severe violence during the pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic did more than cripple the healthcare system, increase inflation and financial uncertainties, and create labour market imbalances.

A newly-released Dalhousie co-led study has found women experienced more frequent, and often more severe violence during the pandemic, creating new challenges for violence against women services and their clients.

The report, entitled Adapting the violence against women systems response to the COVID-19 pandemic, looked at the experience of staff and survivors at violence against women organizations across the Greater Toronto Area during the pandemic. The study was co-led by Dr. Alexa Yakubovich, an Assistant Professor in Dalhousie University's Department of Community Health & Epidemiology and Affiliate Scientist at the MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions at St. Michael’s Hospital and Priya Shastri, an anti-violence advocate with the Toronto Region Violence Against Women Coordinating Committee and Woman Abuse Council of Toronto.

“Service providers told us they were seeing a lot more clients with really severe cases of violence,” Dr. Yakubovich said. “Because of health restrictions and women being isolated at home with abusive partners, there were worse outcomes in terms of struggling to access supports, like counselling, housing, legal support, and appropriate healthcare.”

Shadow Pandemic

Results from the report will be shared at a virtual panel event on June 22 co-hosted with the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation. The presentation, entitled Lighting up the Shadow Pandemic: Violence Against Women, Housing and COVID-19, will highlight the experiences of violence against women and the impact on staff in support services during the COVID-19 pandemic. Panelists will discuss hidden homelessness, shelter access and housing interventions. In addition, Dr. Yakubovich will be leading a webinar on the study findings with the Murial McQueen Fergusson Centre on Family Violence Research on June 23.  

The study also found that nearly every participating organization had to significantly change its service model due to the pandemic, in many cases without sufficient funding. The mental health of both staff and survivors was in many ways negatively impacted. Organizations often struggled with referrals, including to housing, shelter, healthcare, childcare, and legal supports.

Increased support

The report speaks to the need for increased funding to violence against women organizations and for strengthening access to housing, health, justice, and social protection systems for women experiencing violence.

Despite the challenges, Ms. Shastri said, many staff went above and beyond to support women, with survivors describing the support as lifesaving. “They do amazing work,” says one survivor who participated in the study. “This organization has kept me alive.”

Dr. Yakubovich, who joined the Faculty of Medicine in 2021 from the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health and St. Michael’s Hospital’s Centre for Urban Health Solutions, where she conducted post-doctoral research on gender-based violence, has received nearly half a million dollars in funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to expand the Toronto study to all of Ontario, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, and an additional hundred thousand dollars from Nova Scotia Health to expand into the health system. This summer, a team of researchers, advocates, service providers, and women who have experienced violence will begin looking at what is working well in violence against women services across the three provinces to inform better policy and practice. The Interprovincial Violence Against Women Project (or the IPV Project), will also evaluate how well these adaptations met the needs of women across a diversity of social backgrounds, including different gender, sexual, and racial identities, to provide guidance to support women experiencing violence both during and beyond public health emergencies.