The other pandemic we’re ignoring

The #COVID19pandemic has exposed woeful inadequacies in the attention we pay to many vulnerable people in our society, perhaps none more so than the #women whose lives are a daily horror show as a result of #domesticviolence.

We’ve heard a lot about this issue during the period of isolation imposed on us by the #virus, about the women and girls – at least 10 by this point – who have been killed in intimate partner homicides over the last few months. But over that period, there are thousands of others who have been beaten, bullied, harassed and generally terrified by men with whom they are either living or involved.

Most of us agree that violence against women is a blight on our culture. And we all nod our heads in agreement when it’s suggested governments should do more about the problem. And then, after that brief moment of reflection, we try and find something less depressing to think about.

Which is why nothing gets done about the issue.

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If we’re being honest, many of us think of domestic violence – primarily men abusing women in myriad ways – as a problem that plagues those at the lower end of the socio-economic scale, or one that is more of an issue among immigrants or certain ethnic groups. And that may be true, or partially true. But to imagine that it’s not an issue, to some degree, at all levels of society, among all races, among all income levels, is naïve.

And on some level the demographic makeup of the perpetrator is irrelevant. It’s the victims we need to care about. That’s who is being left behind in this discussion, the #women who are fleeing horribly abusive situations, often with kids in tow, looking for a safe house to at least catch their breath so they can figure out what the hell they are going to do next.

And therein lies the first big problem we have here in Canada: not nearly enough shelter spaces for women to turn to when they fear dangerous circumstances at home are about to take a violent twist – or already have.

The turn-away rate at shelters across the country is about 70 per cent, according to Lise Martin, executive director of Women’s Shelters Canada. (A CBC investigation in 2019 found that more than 600 women and children were being rejected from these shelters every day.)

Just think about that number: what it represents is thousands and thousands of women who need help, who need to get out of their homes because their lives may be in danger. So what do they do? Many have no option but to stay in the volatile, life-threatening situation they are trying to flee.

In a country that is as rich as this one, that is shameful. And at a time when #domesticviolence is on the rise because of the lockdown imposed on us by the COVID-19 crisis, it’s even more alarming.

If we’re being honest, many of us think of domestic violence – primarily men abusing women in myriad ways – as a problem that plagues those at the lower end of the socio-economic scale, or one that is more of an issue among immigrants or certain ethnic groups. And that may be true, or partially true. But to imagine that it’s not an issue, to some degree, at all levels of society, among all races, among all income levels, is naïve.

And on some level the demographic makeup of the perpetrator is irrelevant. It’s the victims we need to care about. That’s who is being left behind in this discussion, the women who are fleeing horribly abusive situations, often with kids in tow, looking for a safe house to at least catch their breath so they can figure out what the hell they are going to do next.

And therein lies the first big problem we have here in Canada: not nearly enough shelter spaces for women to turn to when they fear dangerous circumstances at home are about to take a violent twist – or already have.

The turn-away rate at shelters across the country is about 70 per cent, according to Lise Martin, executive director of Women’s Shelters Canada. (A CBC investigation in 2019 found that more than 600 women and children were being rejected from these shelters every day.)

Just think about that number: what it represents is thousands and thousands of women who need help, who need to get out of their homes because their lives may be in danger. So what do they do? Many have no option but to stay in the volatile, life-threatening situation they are trying to flee.

In a country that is as rich as this one, that is shameful. And at a time when domestic violence is on the rise because of the lockdown imposed on us by the COVID-19 crisis, it’s even more alarming.

The federal government has been handing out billions to help prop up a COVID-19-ravaged #economy. About $26-million of the more than $150-billion (and counting) spent by Ottawa has been allocated to the approximately 550 women’s shelters across the country. The average payout has been about $32,000. Another much smaller allotment is expected to be distributed later this year. And most of that funding is designed to help the shelters adapt to social distancing measures and purchase personal protective equipment for staff.

In other words, it does nothing to fundamentally address the chronic shortfall in funding that exists at these centres. It does nothing to help increase spaces to accommodate the burgeoning number of women and girls who are seeking alternative accommodations.

To make matters worse, many of the fundraising activities these shelters count on to survive have had to be cancelled. So Merry Christmas.

We actually have two pandemics going on in this country; one is getting lots of attention and love by the federal government and the other is continuing to be ignored. Domestic violence is a pandemic; a deadly blight around the globe, including in this country. But we don’t seem to be nearly as concerned about how we stack up against other countries in terms of the success rate of our response.

It’s just mind-boggling that women have to sell baked goods in Canada to underwrite the costs of facilities that help them survive and avoid being murdered. But by all means, let’s talk about possibly bailing out the Canadian Football League to the tune of tens of millions of dollars, because it’s way more important.

People, we need to wake up. We need to demand more from not just our politicians, but from ourselves too.

theglobeandmail.com

GARY MASON NATIONAL AFFAIRS COLUMNIST

PUBLISHED MAY 21, 2020

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