Quarantine Highlights the Unique Challenges of Young Women Experiencing IPV

So why aren’t they getting the support they need?

Following COVID-19 safety measures to stay home, reports of domestic violence are growing around the world. By now, you may have seen some of the alarming stats: According to the YWCA, domestic violence reports in China and Italy have largely increased. In Seattle, police received 614 domestic violence calls within the first two weeks of March, which was a 22% increase from the year before. In Portland, Oregon, 38 domestic violence arrests were made over a 10-day period in March, which was a 27% increase from the year prior. These figures are similar in other cities and are expected to get worse.

Here in Canada, the data is still developing, but at least three women have been killed by their partners since isolation started. Across Ontario, Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan, shelters and domestic violence hotlines are reporting increases in volume, and a new Statistics Canada study found that 1 in 10 women are extremely concerned about the possibility of violence in the home.

This spike isn’t surprising—the most dangerous place for a woman is in the home—and last year a woman or girl was killed in Canada every 2.5 days. Mounting stress and financial pressures on abusers during the stay at home order will inevitably increase as time goes on.

But something you may have missed in the stats is just how much intimate partner violence (IPV) is affecting young women, especially during quarantine. Because for many young people, home is often a campus or another home away from home, posing an additional set of risks. So, where does this leave young women who already don’t see themselves reflected in domestic violence supports, are alienated from their families while they socially distance, or are living with their abusers on-or off-campus? 

You can [also] be harassed by your partner and not be living with them. And that certainly is what young women deal with,” says Farrah Khan, the co-director of Courage to Act and founder of Possibility Seeds. “We know that rates of IPV are highest amongst young women, but we always think of it as a middle-age issue.”

Young women don’t feel they’re represented in IPV supports—and they aren’t, especially on campuses

In my own experience, trying to leave an abusive relationship at 19—on my own for the first time and living two hours away from home at Western University—was already difficult enough. I had no idea where to start. 

I didn’t tell anyone about the abuse, except for a few friends my age who didn’t quite understand the situation. (“Just fight him back!,” they’d say.) And I didn’t want to worry my mother by asking for her help. Even still, I knew something was not right in my relationship. I walked around campus looking for posters pointing to a centre for dating violence so I could talk to a counsellor about my concerns, yet all I found were resources for sexual assault (which was also a part of my relationship I wouldn’t yet realize).

The relationship ended in physical violence—and his arrest—towards the end of my first year. While he was court-mandated to take anger management classes, I was given an overworked, abrupt case worker at Victim Services, so I decided to go off on my own, looking in vain for resources on- and off-campus for women in my situation: no longer a teenager, but not a woman in a “domestic” situation, which often entails older or married women. I alerted campus police in case my ex returned, but that didn’t help with what inevitably came next: PTSD, flashbacks, nightmares, a lack of trust and self-destructive behaviours that would last nearly seven years, until I made the decision to seek therapy. 

And it turns out that I wasn’t alone in my experience. According to Statistics Canada, young women in their teens and early 20s experience the highest rates of intimate partner violence in the country, and are five to six times more likely to experience IPV than their male counterparts. They’re also cyberstalked more than any other age group. And according to a 2019 report from Courage to Act: A National Framework to Address and Prevent Gender-Based Violence, a two-year federally funded national initiative to prevent gender-based violence on Canadian post-secondary campuses, four out of five undergraduate students reported experiencing dating violence (a stat that matches the picture in the US, where college-aged women between 16–24 have the highest per capita rate of experiencing IPV. For LGBTQ students, some studies report rates at 50% higher than heterosexual peers, and nine times higher for trans students than their cisgender peers.

How could my generation—the ones leading social justice movements on campuses, joining Women’s Marches, Take Back the Night rallies and Slut Walks, and writing and reading about our intersectional experiences online—still be facing such high rates of IPV? And, most baffling, why did our aforementioned efforts so rarely include talking about IPV, despite it being just as prevalent a crime against young women as sexual assault is, which also happens in intimate relationships? 

Turns out, there’s a lot working against young women. Not only does hook-up culture make it harder to feel comfortable reporting IPV in casual relationships, but non-traditional relationships typically aren’t viewed as “partners” by police and other officials. In addition, young people are more likely to live together because of high rent costs—a situation that leaves people stuck at home with their abuser, including students. “And for international students, it’s a challenge for them to say something because their abuser might threaten that they’ll lose their student status,” Khan says.” When it comes to young people in university or college, there’s a pervasive societal assumption that they are having the time of their lives and immune to violence. 

These are assumptions that are embedded in the very structures meant to deal with intimate partner violence; something I learned while researching and interviewing IPV survivors for my Master’s thesis, and later, for my recently-released memoir, They Said This Would Be Fun. Some young women I spoke with were told to “just leave” their relationship since they weren’t married or didn’t have children. Many others felt that existing domestic violence supports—hotlines, shelters or programs—didn’t represent their demographic. “Shelters are sometimes geared towards older women,” Khan adds. “Shelters may suggest young women go to youth shelters, but youth shelters aren’t made for IPV. And their families or abuser then find them because youth shelters don’t have the same safety parameters.” While this is a larger societal issue, another part is that funding and research in Canada doesn’t tend to primarily focus on young women in their early-to mid-20s, which leaves a gap in knowledge, intervention and prevention programs.

Instead, most gender-based violence programs for young women focus on sexual violence, which has most at-risk victims between 15 to 24 years old—even though that’s the same age group most affected by intimate partner violence. Canadian campuses face the same issue. While sexual violence centres are on most or all campuses, this isn’t true for IPV—and these centres aren’t equipped, or have policies, to deal. One of the reasons for this is that student activism has mainly been focused on sexual violence—in Canada, 41% of all sexual assaults are reported by students. In addition, most government funding for gender-based violence has been earmarked for sexual violence.

“We need to broaden the scope of what violence young women experience on our campuses. It’s too narrow right now to say that it’s solely sexual violence,” Khan says. “And when we do that, we don’t meet the needs of people experiencing gender-based violence on our campuses.

COVID-19 has exacerbated the situation

The lockdown due to the coronavirus presents victims with fewer options to escape, and abusers more excuses to perpetrate power and control. “If you’re in an IPV situation, your partner could use this opportunity to say, ‘you can’t leave now because you’re not safe.’ Or you might be reliant on that partner for your housing or for living expenses—and now with COVID-19, if you lose your job position, you might be forced back into a relationship,” says Khan.

“We also see people abusing or delaying needed support, like not allowing partners to go to the hospital or doctor, withholding cheques and money, and spreading information about [their] partner’s COVID-19 status.”

Thankfully, governments are stepping in to help: In March, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced $50 million for women’s shelters and sexual assault centres, and on April 2, Ontario announced $2.7 million for community agencies to support victims of domestic violence and other violent crimes during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, while this funding can help keep centres and shelters afloat, it doesn’t guarantee job security.

Khan and Courage to Act are having skill-share meetings with gender-based violence support workers and centres, as well as those working in campus student support centres, which are not currently shut down but instead are working remotely. “That’s especially helpful for those doing the work who are isolated themselves—they may be the one person on campus doing this work, so [through these skill-share meetings] they’re able to talk to other people and learn how to increase education and support clients in a safe and confidential way.”

There are ways to get through it

Khan says she’s “deeply concerned” about young people who are experiencing or at risk of gender-based violence right now, and offers some ways of getting through the next few months. She suggests connecting with support organizations through an email address that your partner or family don’t know you have, and start to make a safety plan, such as a phrase or word that you can text to a friend to let them know you are distressed or need them to call the police. In Canada, the Canadian Women’s Foundation (CWF) has launched the Signal for Help initiative; a one-handed sign that individuals can use over video to indicate that they need help (hold palm to camera, tuck thumb into palm and curl fingers into a fist). And in countries like France, women are also being encouraged to go to pharmacies and ask for “Mask 19,” as an indicator that they need assistance.

For young women, reaching out to on- and off-campus gender-based violence support centres can provide additional resources during this time. More resources are continuing to become more remote thanks to funding: For example, the Yukon government will be giving out cellphones for women in vulnerable situations, and ShelterSafe.ca connects women to local shelters.

Khan also suggests reaching out to friends to let them know that you want to stay in touch, and set a time that you will check in with them regularly throughout the week—“even if it’s just to send each other a meme or fun video on TikTok. Make sure to keep connected.” 

And lastly, people experiencing violence should know that they’re not alone, and it’s not their fault. “If you need to leave, no matter what is happening with the pandemic, leave. Go to your friends, a shelter or other community supports.”

Are you experiencing abuse? If you are in immediate danger, call 911. Visit ShelterSafe for 24-7 support, including information on shelters near you. For additional resources—and ways to help abuse survivors—visit Women’s Shelters Canada or YWCA Canada.

Eternity Martis is a Senior Editor at Xtra. She recently released a memoir, They Said This Would Be Fun.

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