“Has domestic violence increased?” Since March 2020, this has been one of the most frequent questions that the members of the Transition House Association of Nova Scotia and our sister organizations across Canada have been receiving. Like so much else in the sector, the answer is complicated.

Reports of increased domestic violence began circulating almost immediately as governments worldwide enforced public health measures such as lockdowns and movement restrictions in an effort to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Terms such as “shadow pandemic” and “pandemic of male violence” abound, and the institutions which serve those who experience male violence found themselves in spotlight. The image of hoards of battered women and abused children, victims of unspeakable acts of violence within the confines of family homes from which they had no recourse was haunting.

There is no doubt, as clearly stated by UN Women and numerous other reports, the conditions brought about by the pandemic – isolation, limited social connections, staying at home for long periods of time- significantly exacerbate the risk of domestic violence and lead to its rise. Meanwhile, increasing numbers of women are pushed into financial instability and dependency as they leave paid work for unpaid care responsibilities- another documented contributing factor to violence. Reaching out for help in these situations becomes even harder and more dangerous. Fear of contagion and of communal places were also known to prevent women from seeking organizational support during this period.

Transition houses have always been about empowering and supporting women to lead safe, healthy lives. While remaining open 24/7 for in-person shelter services, staff switched to virtual support with impressive speed. Safety-planning, counselling, and advocating for their clients was conducted through a variety of devices, ranging from old-fashioned landlines to the latest smartphones and apps. Our transition houses received a constant stream of calls for support, including requests for information and advocacy, with a gradual increase over the months. Some transition houses had less in-shelter clients than they would have normally expected, while others remained at capacity throughout, with clients both from their local rural and small town areas as well as catching the overflow from the urban centre of Halifax.

The pandemic brought about greater recognition of what advocates had always known: domestic violence is not just a private matter, but a public one. It was the most commonly reported crime before the pandemic, and, as more women become financially insecure and dependent, it is reasonable to assume it will remain so after. Community organizations such as transition houses are nimble and adapt to changing circumstances as required: moving their operations online, making alternative residential arrangements such as partnering with hotels, changing their infrastructure in accordance to public health regulations, raising public and private funds to do what they are mandated to do well and effectively.

At the end of the day, male violence against women remains a societal problem, requiring fundamental and sustained sociocultural change. And the current prognosis on the status of women in our society offers no reassurance that such change is forthcoming.