Ending the Silence – A Double Pandemic: COVID-19 and Gender-Based Violence

About The Event

The panel discussion, Ending the Silence – A Double Pandemic: COVID-19 and Gender Based Violence (GBV) was a webinar jointly hosted by the Newcomer Students’ Association (NSA) and the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI), on December 10, 2020. It was part of the annual international campaign on 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, (starting on November 25, International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and ending on December 10, on International Day of Human Rights). Moderated thoughtfully by Sara Asalya, founder of NSA, all three panelists—Cheyanne Ratnam, Salina Abji and Margarita Pintin-Perze—brought their powerful reflections to this discussion.

Globally, one in three women will experience abuse or be subjected to gender-based violence in their lifetime. In Canada, on average every week a woman is killed by her intimate partner. Women are facing this violence simply because they are women. Where are we as a global community today in terms of the rights of women? Have we done enough in Canada?

All panelists began by grounding themselves through sharing their migration beginnings as children of immigrants and refugees to Canada, going on to situate themselves in their professional work in relation to GBV. They noted inequities, as well as an absence of both culturally appropriate services, and of coordinated policy responses leading to systemic failures; and they highlighted the need for differentiated understanding of uniqueness and diversity within the immigrant experience. Cheyanne stated unequivocally that racism in Canada is not a remnant of the country’s colonial past, but is current and ongoing, and that she believes we are closer to the starting point rather than to the finish line when it comes to the prevalence of gender-based violence, be it in Ontario or nationally. Salina asked for states to be held accountable for providing resources, protection, and policy measures to support victims of DV and GBV. Margarita pointed to the continued dehumanization of women, asking who is labelled human, and who has the right to “be human.”

Panelists highlighted the false universality and rhetoric associated with the human rights discourse as these erasures, they claimed, of vulnerable cohorts of women, continue to happen when human rights are systematically denied to racialized, immigrant and refugees, non-status, and indigenous women. Where is the promise of ‘human rights’ then, they asked, and what needs to be in place so that metrics for contextualizing, implementing and measuring these can be realized? 

We can’t talk about combating GBV here in Canada and within the immigrant and refugee community without acknowledging that there are thousands of Indigenous women, trans, and two-spirit people who are particularly vulnerable to violence because of historical and ongoing systemic sexism, racism, and trans/misogyny. How can we build a national advocacy movement to talk about GBV?

Panelists noted the complexities and dilemmas of combating GBV through building a national movement based in solidarity, and with humility, across differentiated experiences of women groups listed above. Particularly, the discussion problematized the need and concerns around establishing mutual and respectful alliances while centering the conversation on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), holding space for these “different” stories of violence to build a Canadian story.

What can purposeful ally-ship, necessary for creating solidarity momentum, look like in this complicated scenario, one rooted in multiple histories and paradoxical narratives? How can immigrant and racialized women, being settlers ourselves, initiate such a coalition, and be there for our indigenous sisters? Given that shared understanding of gendered experience must simultaneously co-exist with differentiated forms of GBV in different communities, an equity (not equality) lens was one of the approaches suggested by panelists when thinking of a national movement, one tempered in equal part by accountability, compassion, and discomfort. The candour these passionate speakers brought forth in each of their responses, and the nuance with which they explored complex multiplicities not only in their own immigrant positionality, but also in the many approaches to understanding and addressing GBV, was a significant aspect of this dialogue.

For instance, to look with self-awareness at the Canadian dream of building a better life that immigrant families carried in their hearts as part of the migration trajectory (as all newcomers to Canada do); and while doing so, to also acknowledge and question one’s own place and complicity within the history of settler colonialism, is certainly a reflexive stance we must take. The immigrant story is so tied in with the narrative of nation-building in Canada—, one requiring of gratitude, especially from those seeking a safe haven here; but the real on-the- ground experiences of racism and microaggressions, sexism and exclusion faced by racialized groups, make them question, “Is this the Canada I signed up for?” What is at stake, and what is the backlash, when immigrants and refugees, racialized individuals and groups, are not adequately grateful for the refuge they received here?

The issue of gender-based violence has always been present in Canadian society, but the GBV crisis during COVID-19 is the new shadow pandemic, with an increase of 20-30 percent of gender-based violence and domestic violence cases since the start of COVID-19, and the number of domestic violence calls to helplines in some regions having increased by up to 400 percent. What do you think are the root causes behind such an alarming escalation in GBV at this time?  

Proposing an intersectional approach, the panelists referred to the disproportionate negative impacts of COVID-19 on racialized women, discussing how the GBV crisis already raging pre-pandemic, further caused inequities and gendered violence to explode in racialized communities in the last few months, women being further left behind by social isolation, loss of critical supports and of employment, in many cases with added threats of deportation being used by partners and employers to further restrict their freedoms. In an environment where physical distancing becomes the norm, formal and informal resources to support women suddenly disappear; what could/should a safety plan for a woman faced with GBV look like? The solution framework, panelists suggested, must go into GBV work with a ‘differential’ approach and an `empathy’ lens, one that has at its center humility and respect for uniqueness. Victim blaming will not do, nor will theoretical insights that do not consider the entire experiential reality of a woman’s circumstances, including factors that often push her to continue staying in an abusive relationship.

Recommendations  

In terms of safety strategies for women seeking escape from a difficult GBV situation, Cheyanne emphasized the significance of a preparedness plan, creating alternative, and covert, ways of sharing information, educating community members to be allies, playing the role of friend or listening ear, but without imposing one’s own ideology or pushing a point of view. Salina talked about system- level solutions, including listening well to grassroots migrant justice movements so that any post-COVID recovery is just, and that people do not have to negotiate between different harms; so that racialized community members can report without fear of impacting their immigrant status. Margarita suggested that GBV be understood and addressed as a social problem, needing a collaborative approach; centering and acknowledging individual experience, and a system- level metrics of support emerging from there. The bystander model was reiterated too, and following on that, the need to create safe spaces at an informal and grassroots level; making sure that structures, both formal and informal, can be created that center lived experience to ensure individuals impacted by GBV have a seat at the table so they can be the experts guiding appropriate solution-building rather than policy people making top-down unrealistic decisions on their behalf.

Part of the discussion were also questions relating to the role of the family unit and of socialization, with focus on elders and younger members of the family, to address issues of toxic masculinity in the home as issues like GBV can hardly be tackled with policy tools alone.

The magic potion of authenticity, self-reflexive courage and passion of lived experience that drove this insightful conversation was indeed one of the special treats in this pandemic year, we urge you to check out the recording of this event below and we hope to see you at our next webinar in February.

Authors: Alka Kumar is the manager of research and policy at the Newcomer Students’ Association.

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