After almost two months of COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, staff members at some sexual assault centres in Canada are worried – and bracing for crisis calls to skyrocket.

Women and girls who are now confined with sexual abusers may not be able to reach out for help because they don’t have the opportunity to safely make a call or send an email. But, as restrictions are lifted, service providers expect their services to be in even higher demand than usual.

“We know that people are likely in survival mode right now” says Cheryl Bujold, Executive Director at the Dragonfly Counselling and Support Centre in Bonnyville, Alberta. “Like we saw with the wildfires in Fort McMurray, people were able to get by, but then they needed services to help them move forward on their healing journey. With the pandemic situation, we haven’t seen that peak yet. I think we’re at the bottom of it.”

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May is recognized as Sexual Assault Awareness/Prevention month in many regions of Canada, and the COVID-19 pandemic is presenting both survivors and service providers with unprecedented challenges. Those challenges are hitting a sector that is already underfunded and struggling to meet demand. Since the #MeToo and #Timesup movements, “community-based sexual assault centres have seen a significant upswing in calls, leading to waitlists for supportive counselling” across Ontario, said the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres in a recent statement.

Pandemic poses new challenges for sexual assault survivors and service providers

Under pre-pandemic circumstances, there were ways for people living in sexually abusive situations to alleviate some of the stress and tension, says Sandra McKellar, Executive Director at the Newfoundland and Labrador Sexual Assault Crisis and Prevention Centre. For example, if a woman’s partner “worked away” for a few weeks at a time, she might have the opportunity to reach out for support or plan what to do, McKellar said. Now, she says, “that relaxation period, when someone can figure out how they’re going to manage, is not there.”

Across the country, many sexual assault service providers quickly adapted to the pandemic by moving to virtual support sessions and crisis response while continuing to provide round-the-clock, confidential services. But some in-person services, such as hospital accompaniments for those who have experienced sexual assault, may be more challenging to provide by phone or virtually. “It may not feel as personal but, for the survivor, I think there’s still the reassurance that there is someone out there who can support me,” McKellar says.

Another barrier for those who’ve experienced sexual assault is that most court procedures have been put hold, delaying some survivors’ journeys toward recourse and recovery. “Survivors are facing challenges at each part of the process, so everyone is remaining in the same space,” McKellar says, “but you keep providing the support because they require ongoing help and you do not want them to fall through the cracks.”

Specific challenges for rural and remote communities
At the Dragonfly Centre in Alberta, Bujold says they’ve already seen an influx in calls related to the pandemic, and they were on track to have a higher-than-normal number of new clients for April. While the majority of calls are about sexual violence, “there are also those who are dealing with anxiety, depression, and mental health issues related to COVID,” she says. Many people in the region were already being impacted by the economic downturn in the oil and gas industry.

The Dragonfly Centre serves a vast area of northern Alberta, which includes clients who live up to five hours from the closest city. Under normal circumstances, some Dragonfly staff members would travel, on average, three hours a day to service outreach areas. “Because we’ve decreased the travel during the pandemic, we’ve increased the number of clients we’re able to see,” Bujold says. This is helping them accommodate an increased number of calls coming from areas outside the centre’s service region, Bujold says. “Communities that were struggling before are just facing an abundance of issues now.”

She’s also concerned about what schools are saying. “We’re hearing weekly that schools are fearful and that there are multiple families in crisis, and that they’re in limbo about what to do, and they’re looking to us for support.” Like McKellar, she’s worried that the centre’s already stretched resources will have to go farther to reach underserved communities in the area. “My real concern is that we’re sitting on an explosion of people who are going to be in need, following the pandemic.”

While the federal government partnered with the Canadian Women’s Foundation to distribute emergency funding to sexual assault centres throughout Canada during the pandemic, more will be needed needed. Many sexual assault centres won’t be able to hold annual fundraising events this year, and they expect to see community donations fall because of the pandemic’s economic impacts.

Yet, staff at sexual assault centres know their services remain critical to women’s safety and survival, and say they want to get the message out that they’re there to support survivors. “I want the public to know we’re still here and that we do hear them,” McKellar says, “we know that sexual violence is still occurring in our communities and we are here to support and help them speak when they feel like they have no voice.”

For those seeking support for sexual violence, the Newfoundland and Labrador Sexual Assault Crisis and Prevention Centre and the Dragonfly Counselling and Support Centre in Bonnyville, Alberta are two resources that have received funding from the Canadian Women’s Foundation. Consult this resource list to learn about support services across Canada.

The Foundation has launched the Tireless Together Fund to help ensure that vulnerable women and girls aren’t left behind in the COVID-19 crisis. Your contribution will help critical programs for diverse women, girls, and trans and non-binary people continue through the pandemic.

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