Following a year filled with economic stress, the possibility of a recession has been a cause for concern among advocates working to end gender-based violence, who fear the increasing economic strain on Canadians will only grow the invisible pandemic happening to domestic abuse victims.
Since the pandemic hit in 2020, cases of domestic violence have steadily grown in Canada as police reports have shown an increase in violence against different women groups and children as people quarantined at home during the spike of COVID-19.
These concerning patterns are likely to increase as Canadians, particularly women, continue to struggle with the rising cost of living, affecting their ability to afford basic necessities, says founder of the Canadian Centre for Women’s Empowerment (CCFWE) Meseret Haileyesus.
“When living costs increase, their (women) purchasing power is diminished, so that means they cannot afford anything and especially if there is an abuse at home financially, these women [can be] deprived even to pay for sanitary pads,” Haileyesus told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview on Friday.
While economic crises don’t cause domestic violence, Haileyesus says issues like unemployment can feed into this abuse similar to the pandemic where the abuser is at home more often or the stress of economic instability can lead to more conflict.
In a study conducted by the CCFWE, 80 per cent of victims said their abusers were more controlling and displayed manipulated behaviour during economic instability in 2020 throughout the pandemic. Additionally 93 per cent of women said their abuser would withhold money they needed to pay for food and clothes among other necessities.
Similarly, a 2016 study analyzing the patterns of domestic violence during the Great Recession of 2008-2009 in the U.S. found that men who reported anxiety and instability during economic downturns, whether they were unemployed or not, were more likely to exhibit controlling behaviour to their romantic partners.
SYSTEMIC ISSUE MAGNIFYING VIOLENCE
Colleen Varcoe, a professor and researcher of violence and inequity at the University of British Columbia says domestic violence will only continue to be magnified by economic downturns if changes and policies aren’t made to support victims.
“This is not about bad individuals, this is about a systemic situation, where violence is visited on people who are the most vulnerable in our society whether that’s women, children, transgender folks, or the elderly,” Varcoe told CTVNews.ca in a webcam interview on Friday.
“These dynamics are only going to worsen conditions for people who are the most marginalized and it affects people differently depending on their social circumstances, so the fewer resources you have in terms of economics, the more you’re going to be affected.”
In 2022, a parliamentary report by the Standing Committee on the Status of Women offered 28 recommendations for the government to act on the lack of financial freedom that feeds into gender-based violence.
Haileyesus says these recommendations include making policies around the workplace or in bank and telecommunication institutions to offer support and options for victims to safely leave their abusive situation.
“We need to have inclusive policies that enhance women’s job security, [which] will contribute to reduction of domestic violence. It has to be tailored according to the women’s context, according to survivors’ context because the existing support system with domestic violence survivors is inadequate, even during the pandemic,” she said.
Haileyesus says many women have their credit ruined by their abuser leaving them without a financial backup, or because they are cut off from their finances and can’t pay for their phone bill it can isolate them from contacting any support system.
SUPPORT FOR VICTIMS DURING ECONOMIC CRISES
Victims of domestic abuse can feel encouraged to stay with their abuser during financial crises which is why it’s imperative to prepare them to leave their situation safely, both physically and financially, Haileyesus says.
“We encourage women to have a safe exit not only physically but economically because once your credit is destroyed by your abuser and the living cost is very high, it’s very hard to even qualify for an apartment otherwise they have to stay in that situation,” she said.
By first reaching out for help to anyone they can trust, Haileyesus recommends talking to a credit bureau or the bank to discuss the state of their finances and whether their abuser has tampered with their money by abusing their credit or stealing an electronic signature.
“Financial and economic abuse is the worst and the most terrible form of violence, which takes [an] entire woman’s life because the issue is, even though the abuser is not around, if you declare bankruptcy two, three times it can destroy your life,” she said.
As for community and individual support, Varcoe says financial support for victims of abuse either directly to them or through community services can be life-changing.
The economic downturn has caused significant strain on housing shelters and food banks across the country, so donations and support for regional and provincial policies to fund these services can help those affected.
Being non-judgemental to victims of abuse can also help further the conversation of domestic violence and the gender inequity that feeds it, Varcoe said.
“I think that the enormous uptick in violence against women that we saw during COVID can only be expected to worsen unless we really focus on not just economic recovery, but particular emphasis on gender equity,” Varcoe said.
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