How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected women in Canada experiencing family and intimate partner violence? And how did organizations that support these women adapt to support their clients?

Researchers in a new federally funded University of Guelph study project hope to answer these questions by gathering the latest evidence and by speaking directly with those women affected.

The $148,000 project will be led by Dr. Paula Barata, a psychology professor in the College of Social and Applied Human Sciences, who will work closely with Lieran Docherty from the Woman Abuse Council of Toronto and Dr. Melissa Tanti from U of G’s Community Engaged Scholarship Institute.

“We know that early evidence from community and government agencies suggests family violence increased during the pandemic,” said Barata. “We want to collect the most relevant information and then identify patterns on how women were impacted and what organizations did to adapt.”

Understanding where service gaps emerged during pandemic

Dr. Paula Barata

The researchers hope to understand what services women were able to access during lockdowns and stay-at-home orders, particularly young mothers and those experiencing housing instability. The research team also wants to understand how service agencies continued to support clients or where gaps in service appeared.

The second phase of the study will involve interviews with women who have experienced family violence to identify the challenges and supports they encountered when trying to seek help, as well as what supports were most useful.

“Dr. Barata’s research will provide crucial information on the conditions that have so negatively impacted the lives of Canadian women who experienced intimate partner violence during the pandemic,” said Dr. Malcolm Campbell, U of G vice-president (research).

Understanding why family violence increased during this challenging time and pinpointing what services were lacking for women will provide an opportunity to improve the lives of women now and in the future, he added.

“We will have a much better idea what needs to be done to ensure that women are safe and have the support they need. This research will undoubtedly be of benefit to women across this country and around the world.”

The research project is one of 89 across the country that recently received more than $13.7 million in funding from the Government of Canada through the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

“Congratulations to Dr. Barata and her team at the University of Guelph for the important work being done to understand further the ‘pandemic paradox’ and the impact public health measures had on increasing risk for women isolated in unsafe situations,” said Lloyd Longfield, MP for Guelph. “The federal government moved swiftly to provide funding to women’s support agencies and shelters, and this research will help inform longer term solutions that are needed to support women and children on an ongoing basis.”

Pandemic paradox: Stay-at-home orders increased risk

Barata said her team’s project is important given the upheaval caused by the pandemic. She said many of the measures put in place to protect the public had unintended consequences for women at risk of violence. Stay-at-home orders and increased stress in the home put some families at greater risk — a situation many have called the “pandemic paradox.”

Victims of family violence may have found it difficult to access supports if their abusers were home all day or access to services was limited.

“We have seen, for example, that visits to hospital emergency rooms went way down, while calls to crisis hotlines and telehealth services went up,” she said. “What effect did that have on these women’s well-being and housing stability?”

The researchers hope to highlight young women and mothers, as these demographics are both often overlooked and less likely to seek assistance.

“What will be unique about this project is that community organizations and women with lived experience of violence will help design the study,” said Barata. “That means that those people who would be most impacted by our findings and recommendations will be directly involved.”

Interviews with survivors will help to identify the challenges and gaps in services and identify where changes in service provision were helpful.

The aim is to create actionable recommendations to improve service delivery and policies that directly affect those experiencing family violence.

“By working together with community organizations and women survivors, we will learn from each other and help ensure that the information gained is useful to policy makers, advocates and service providers,” said Barata.


Dr. Paula Barata