Violence Against Women Services Elgin County (VAWSEC) has seen a 27% increase of women and children accessing their services during the pandemic year compared to the prior year.
“What we know about any form of abuse is if you’re in isolation, it increases,” said VAWSEC Executive Director Liz Brown.
From April 2019 to March 2020, VAWSEC served 2,562 women and children. While navigating the COVID-19 pandemic from April 2020 to March 2021, a total of 3,261 women and children were served.
Ms. Brown said this alarming trend has been consistent globally, as well as been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“What happens in COVID is the frequency is going up because no one is leaving the house when you’re in lockdown,” explained Ms. Brown. “So there are more hours in the day when harm can occur.”
The severity of violence has also increased, she noted, due to isolation experienced during the pandemic. Those experiencing abuse are more often separated from friends, family, and coworkers, which reduces the likelihood of someone else noticing a problem.
She added that gender based violence “was already a pandemic before COVID-19.” In March 2021, the World Health Organization released the largest global study to date on violence against women and concluded that 1 in 3 women experience physical and/or sexual violence across the world.
As a result, VAWSEC has been open daily to offer it’s essential community services since the start of the pandemic and does not close throughout province-wide lockdowns. The agency does not use Zoom or video conferencing, because, said Ms. Brown, as it’s not possible to establish whether a client is safe in their home.
Services are offered by telephone, in-person, or in residence. Some supports are offered 24 hours a day, seven days a week, including the helpline, drop-in support, and an emergency shelter.
All of the organization’s programs continue to run, including help for children; abuse counselling; sexual assault support; housing help; legal consultation; family court support; prevention through education; and workplace consulting services.
To prevent COVID-19 spread, VAWSEC staff follow standard procedures set out by Public Health Ontario.
Ms. Brown said the organization’s headquarters at 45 Princess Avenue in St. Thomas is ideal throughout the pandemic, as there is enough space to physically distance, as well they have newer air exchange systems optimal for infection prevention and control procedures.
“Just like the hospitals, we don’t deny people access to service,” said Ms. Brown. “There is no requirement to be COVID-free or symptom-free to receive services because we can do so safely for everyone involved.”
Staff at the facility screen clients for symptoms of COVID-19, as well as take their temperature. All employees wear face masks, provide personal equipment to anyone coming through their doors, and ensure that they use it for consistent containment.
VAWSEC has not experienced an outbreak to date, added Ms. Brown, which she credited to a diligent team of employees and a caring community.
One of the ways they have ensured there are no outbreaks is not allowing visitors.
“We stopped accepting donations about a year ago just to reduce the number of visitors on-site,” said Ms. Brown. “The only people coming on site are people who are accessing any of our services.”
The majority of staff at VAWSEC are paid employees, rather than volunteers. There are some volunteers that help out with special events, and others on the board of directors.
“It is very difficult for women to feel safe coming forward if it’s their neighbor down the street who volunteers,” explained Ms. Brown. “If it’s someone who’s paid, then that person has to keep their confidentiality.”
The VAWSEC employee team is made up of the program manager, administrative coordinator, executive director, and paid counsellors.
“We make sure that we have paid sick days for our colleagues and that each of us steps up to fill in when needed,” said Ms. Brown.
She added that all clients have been accepting about wearing masks, and are often simply grateful to still have access to the service.
VAWSEC sees clients from every single postal code in Elgin County and St. Thomas. Clients come from various backgrounds, including those who are racialized, in same-sex relationships, transgender, and women married to financially successful people, said Ms. Brown.
“We see women from every single walk of life because our vocation, our privilege, our income, is not a vaccine that innoculates us from vulnerability to violence against women,” said Ms. Brown.
VAWSEC has four locations total, including a satellite office in Aylmer, West Lorne, St. Thomas, and the emergency shelter at 45 Princess Avenue, but only the 45 Princess Avenue location is currently available. The Aylmer, West Lorne, and St. Thomas satellite office will be available after the pandemic, said Ms. Brown.
“We want to meet people where they’re at, in the moment that they’re at, and not say call us back a different time,” said Ms. Brown.
VAWSEC typically sees about 2,000 clients annually across all of their programs. Anyone in need of the services can phone or drop by any time, with transportation costs covered.
Veronica Reiner, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Aylmer Express