The rise of domestic abuse amidst the COVID pandemic: why shelters are struggling to satisfy women’s growing need for support

By Katie Wilkins

As COVID-19 has become more widespread over the past few weeks, incidences of gender-based violence have increased.[1,2,3] This is a trend that has been reliably observed in crisis situations throughout recent history: during times of war, economic collapse, and now, pandemic.[1] The increase in gender-based violence in these situations is multifactorial, but can largely be attributed to elevated stress that culminates in higher levels of aggressive behaviours, with women and children most negatively impacted.[3] In the context of the current global pandemic, strict social distancing guidelines have forced the closure of schools and most workplaces, and discouraged the spending of time outside of the home. This means that victims of domestic violence are forced to isolate with their abusers.[2] An increased demand on domestic violence resources has resulted, as these women and children attempt to escape their dangerous living situations.[4] The unfortunate reality is that COVID-19 has increased victims’ need for help, but has also made it more and more difficult for women’s shelters and other resources to offer support.[2,4]

A women’s shelter in Calgary has been forced to turn away those seeking a safe place to stay, despite having empty beds.[4] While their rooms are large enough to accommodate multiple residents under normal conditions, social distancing regulations allow only one person or family per room, meaning that their capacity to offer shelter has been reduced by 80%.[4] Despite the increase in crisis calls they receive every day, the facilities simply do not exist to provide safe accommodations for the all people who need them.[4]

Women’s shelters in New Brunswick have expressed concern over a lack of funding.[2] Due to social distancing practices, shelters have had to cancel or postpone major fundraising events.[2] For many of these organizations, fundraisers comprise a huge component of their income – up to hundreds of thousands of dollars – and these shelters are now left struggling to stay operating under dramatically reduced budgets.[2] It is expected that shelters will receive some amount of emergency funding from the federal government, but it is not clear when that financial relief will come or if it will be sufficient to cover the costs of operation.[2]

As most shelters in Canada are no longer accepting donations of goods due to concerns over virus contamination, the best way to support these organizations is through financial donations and through advocating for an increase in government attention to this gender-based violence crisis.[1,3] For example, in Germany, calls have been made to make vacant hotel rooms accessible to shelters in order to exponentially increase the number of individuals they are able to house safely.[3] Canadians should follow this example. In order to ensure the safety of society’s most vulnerable during this crisis, we must support both the victims of domestic violence and the organizations that are experts at providing them help.

  1. Canadian Press. Domestic violence shelters adapt as COVID-19 forces families home. Cochrane Today [Internet]. 2020 March 21. Available from:
  2. Smith C. Women’s shelters, sexual assault centres, face funding shortfalls during COVID-19 pandemic. Global News [Internet]. 2020 April 2. Available from:
  3. Graham-Harrison E, Giuffrida A, Smith H. Lockdowns around the world bring rise in domestic violence. The Guardian [Internet]. 2020 March 28. Available from:
  4. Pimentel T. COVID-19 pandemic putting pressure on women’s shelters. APTN National News [Internet]. 2020 March 27. Available from:

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