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The pandemic is taking women’s breath away: Intimate partner violence and strangulation on the rise during Covid-19
Author: Karen Mason, Co-founder of SOAR (Supporting Survivors of Abuse and Brain Injury through Research)
Since Covid-19 and its lockdowns first threw a giant wrench in our collective lives more than eight months ago, news headlines around the world have echoed a similar theme.
Whether it’s CBC, the Canadian Press, or the New York Times, the message is clear and unequivocal: The pandemic has created ideal conditions for intimate partner violence and abuse to thrive. Vulnerable victims are trapped at home with their abusers, making it harder than ever to access help and safety.
Intimate partner violence and abuse already affect one in three women around the globe. In Canada, a woman is killed by her intimate partner every six days, and Canadians spend more than $7.4 billion in tax dollars every year on the consequences of intimate partner violence.
While the pandemic can’t be blamed for intimate partner violence, it has absolutely played a major contributing role in worsening this existing public health emergency. Indeed, UN Women, the United Nations entity dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women, has called violence against women the “shadow pandemic” of the Covid-19 crisis.
This past summer, the Ending Violence Association of Canada and Anova surveyed 376 staff and volunteers in the gender-based violence sector. The resulting report “Pandemic Meets Pandemic: Understanding the Impacts of Covid-19 on Gender-Based Violence Service Provision” found that 82% of workers described “an increase in prevalence and severity of violence.” Comments from the survey also referenced a dramatic increase in reports of strangulation.
Strangulation is an extremely common, and dangerous, form of intimate partner violence. It is widely known as the most lethal form of intimate partner violence, which happens in roughly half of all cases, and can cause brain injury or death within minutes. In fact, women who are strangled are 750 times more likely to be killed in a subsequent assault. It’s a shocking and highly troubling fact of which most survivors, and indeed, many of those who work on the frontlines to support them, are not even aware.
The increase in violence, and strangulation in particular, is even more alarming given the findings from a small, but steadily growing, body of research. Recent studies have shown as many as 92% of women who experience intimate partner violence may also experience a brain injury. 
Given the shame and stigma still associated with intimate partner violence, many victims are reluctant to report it. That fact, combined with an ongoing lack of education on the intersection of intimate partner violence with brain injury, means many of these injuries go undiagnosed and untreated.
What can we do?
In a bluntly worded commentary in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, several authors said when it comes to health care providers the answer to that question is “more”.
The piece stated those who work with women in health care settings “frequently” encounter victims of partner violence. Yet only 14% of patients, who clearly had intimate partner violence-related injuries, were questioned specifically about the issue or their need for support.
The article went on to add “health care providers, although facing the need to learn many new skills related to COVID-19, must also maintain awareness of IPV, seek opportunities for self-education, develop strategies for discussing IPV and become familiar with currently available local resources for patient referral.”
Recognizing the true scope of intimate partner violence, and of strangulation as a highly lethal aspect of it, must be part of that effort. For those who work in health care, that means learning how to look for key signs and symptoms.
Women who’ve been strangled may have:
- Raspy voice
- Trouble swallowing/breathing
- Ringing in the ears
- Red spots in eyes or on skin
- Scratches/bruising on neck
- Loss of memory
- No visible signs or symptoms! It’s important to note strangulation can often cause unseen internal injury that can lead to death, even months after an incident.
Women who’ve experienced brain injury as a result of intimate partner violence may report:
- Trouble sleeping
- Worries and fears
- Sensitivity to noise and light
- Memory issues
- Difficulty concentrating
- Trouble managing emotional responses
But what about those among us who aren’t medical professionals? What can we do when faced with the possibility a friend, co-worker, or family member may be experiencing intimate partner violence?
Learning about the Cycle of Abuse, which outlines the pattern of how violence escalates and explodes, is a good way to educate yourself.
While the cycle can occur over the course of hours, days, weeks, or months, it’s typically the same.Becoming familiar with the signs of abuse you might notice is another great way to get educated.
- Have bruises, scratches or other unexplained injuries.
- Seem anxious, uncomfortable or afraid around their partner.
- Withdraw and make excuses not to spend time with family and friends.
- Seem to have little access to money or other resources.
- Wear clothing such as pants and long-sleeved shirts, even in summertime.
- Get frequent calls or texts from their partner and display a need to check in often.
- Make excuses for their partner’s bad behaviour
Listen and support
One of the key things any of us can do when it comes to interacting with survivors of intimate partner violence is to listen and provide support. Be a non-judgmental, confidential ear, and consider saying things such as:
- “You didn’t deserve this. It’s not your fault.”
- “I’m sorry this happened to you.”
- “I’m concerned about you.”
- “How can I help?”
- “It sounds like you’re doing the best you can.”
- “I’m here to listen.”
Women who receive positive responses tend to recover more quickly. They are even more likely to work with the authorities, access safety supports, and report future instances of violence.
If you know someone who is experiencing abuse, and they’re ready to leave the relationship or otherwise seek help, there are countless free, confidential resources to which you can point them, including Sheltersafe. This clickable, online map resource from Women’s Shelters Canada connects women to the nearest shelter, where they can find safe refuge, and the counselling and other supports they need to transition into a life free of abuse.
With the second wave of the pandemic upon us, and new lockdowns already underway or looming, it’s clear the risk to victims of intimate partner violence is far from over. And while this November 25th marks an important opportunity to highlight the issue through the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and the start of 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, we must remain vigilant in the months and year still to come if we are to have any hope of beating the shadow pandemic.
Karen Mason is an advocate for women survivors of intimate partner violence, and is co-founder and director of community practice for SOAR (Supporting Survivors of Abuse and Brain Injury through Research). All figures have been provided for by SOAR.
1. Trudell, A.L. & Whitmore, E. (2020). Pandemic meets Pandemic: Understanding the Impacts of COVID- 19 on Gender-Based Violence Services and Survivors in Canada. Ottawa & London, ON: Ending Violence Association of Canada & Anova. https://endingviolencecanada.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/FINAL.pdf
2. St Ivany, A., & Schminkey, D. (2016). Intimate Partner Violence and Traumatic Brain Injury: State of the Science and Next Steps. Family & community health, 39(2), 129–137. https://doi.org/10.1097/FCH.0000000000000094
3. Strack, G. B., & Gwinn, C. (2011). On the Edge of Homicide: Strangulation as a Prelude. Criminal Justice, 26(3), fall. Retrieved from https://www.familyjusticecenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/On-the-Ed....
4. Glass, N., Laughon, K., Campbell, J., Block, C. R., Hanson, G., Sharps, P. W., & Taliaferro, E. (2008). Non-fatal strangulation is an important risk factor for homicide of women. The Journal of emergency medicine, 35(3), 329–335. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jemermed.2007.02.065
5. Bradley, N. L., Dipasquale, A. M., Dillabough, K., & Schneider, P. S. (2020). Health care practitioners’ responsibility to address intimate partner violence related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 192(22). doi:10.1503/cmaj.200634
Feature image courtesy of Nicolas Moscarda on Unsplash.