May 4, 2020

The loneliest place: UCalgary expertise supports women in abusive relationships during COVID-19

Domestic violence rates are expected to spike as women in isolation with an abusive spouse struggle more than ever to catch their breath or access a clear route out
Adult alone
Adult alone

For some, the reality of being at home around the clock isn’t merely a challenge — it’s a tinderbox waiting to catch fire. A new report from Statistics Canada looks at COVID-19’s impact on domestic violence rates, which are expected to spike as Canadians in abusive relationships spend more time with one another in isolation.

Indeed, here in Calgary, calls (most often, by far, from women) to police and social agencies went up in the first couple of weeks of isolation but then, unsettlingly, the pattern shifted.

Kim Ruse, BSW ’94, MSW ’99, is the executive director of the Calgary Women’s Emergency Shelter. She says that typically, women experiencing or anticipating domestic violence would call during the day from work or when their partner left for work. Now, not only is there greater hesitation to reach out due to social distancing conditions, but also choosing a safe, private time and place to make such a call is a frightening prospect.

“We’re getting shorter calls at different times of the day and night,” says Ruse.

Women will call from the grocery store or when they’ve found another way to be alone such as during a walk around the block.

In general, Ruse says, “The ability to reach out for help is dramatically supressed just as tension is escalating with families at home together around the clock.”

For the first time in years, the Women’s Emergency Shelter has sporadically had empty beds over the past month. Ruse believes that’s because women who had planned to leave cannot now find an opportunity. “Often, women would leave during the day when their spouse was at work, and they’d stop to pick up the kids from school.” Safely fleeing domestic violence is logistically harder and, potentially, more dangerous than ever.

Lana Wells and her team research what’s happening for individuals in violent domestic situations around the world during this health crisis.

Lana Wells and her team research what’s happening for individuals in violent domestic situations around the world during this health crisis.

Riley Brandt, University of Calgarya

Project shifts its focus to COVID-19 realities

Lana Wells is associate professor and the Brenda Strafford Chair in the Prevention of Domestic Violence in the Faculty of Social Work; she leads Shift: The Project to End Domestic Violence. The focus of that ongoing initiative pivoted last month to measure rates of sexual violence and how people are accessing supports during COVID-19, in order to determine how agencies can better respond.

“Everything’s changing so fast,” says Wells. “We did a quick scan of what’s happening in other countries right now and we’re seeing everything from higher rates of divorce in China to women in France seeking help from local pharmacists trained to react when given a code word.” Learning what’s happening for individuals in violent domestic situations around the world during this health crisis gives Wells and her team insight into patterns of prevalence and access to help.

We’re partnering with leaders from Canada’s domestic and sexual violence sectors to collect and understand important data points around how women are seeking help, and what we can do.

“Many people are not going to police, agencies or health-care providers right now — they’re more likely calling friends,” says Wells. As well, both Ruse and Wells point to a potentially helpful, if heartbreaking, increase in the number of calls from men seeking help at this time.

“Men are calling to say, 'I’m not coping well right now,' ” says Ruse, who estimates that calls from men to programs offering support are up by 35 per cent. She and Wells are leading the charge to get a provincial MensLine connecting to a national project to provide more visible and robust support for men in distress, in particular those who fear they are poised to hurt their partners.

In the meantime, the shelter and other agencies have made themselves more digitally accessible to anyone who needs help, via email ( and text (403-604-6689).

Certainly, it’s not easy to provide support to friends, neighbours, colleagues and extended family members that align with the current social conditions during this pandemic.

Strategies to provide support safely

  • Reach out to those you worry about and keep in touch.
  • If possible and appropriate, develop a code word or sign that can be shared if someone is in need of help and may not be able to reach out otherwise because of self-isolation circumstances. This could include a leaving on certain lights in their home, opening or closing certain blinds, etc.
  • Encourage those you are worried about to keep their cell phone fully charged.
  • If someone manages to disclose to you, listen and support them and help them connect with resources such as the 24 Hour Connect Family Help Line (403) 234-7233. They may not be able to call for themselves but you could call for support and assistance with safety planning.
  • If someone does disclose to you, it is a situation you don’t need to handle alone. If you need support in how to help, you can call the Help Line and they will guide you.
  • Find reasons to connect or drop by to even talk from a distance at the door.
  • Encourage them to get out and get some space and exercise.
  • If possible, offer to meet for a walk at a distance.
  • Arrange for a daily or weekly check-in.
  • If danger is immediate, call 911.

May is Sexual Violence Awareness Month in Alberta. Take part in UCalgary’s “Dear Survivor,” campaign and share your message of hope with a survivor.

Access help, education and resources for the UCalgary community through the Sexual Violence Support office.

At UCalgary we continue to offer mental health support for students, faculty and staff with remote services. Visit our Mental Health During COVID-19 webpage for more information on how we can take care of ourselves and each other during this difficult time.

Additional resources:

Living in an Abusive Relationship Safety Planning Guide

Tech safety guide