This International Women’s Day ensure that women’s expert voices are centred in COVID-19 recovery plans

Woman in business suit with face mask

Op-Ed in The Toronto Star by Farrah Khan and Pamela Cross

This International Women’s Day we can expect to hear the usual platitudes from government, business and institutions about women’s empowerment and how far we have come. What we deserve to hear are concrete commitments to address the gender-based impacts of the pandemic. We cannot go back on decades of progress on women’s gender equity.

It’s been almost a full year since the pandemic hit. During that time, lockdowns and stay-at-home orders, while important for controlling the spread of the virus, have exacerbated violence in the home.

Women are living in precarious situations faced with a limited reprieve from violence. Family courts have only been able to manage the most urgent issues, which has left some women and children in unsafe situations. Criminal courts are releasing higher numbers of accused people on bail to try to control the spread of COVID-19 in jails.

Court services, such as duty counsel, have been available only remotely. Supervised access centres have not been in operation for much of the past year. Violence against women shelters have had to reduce their capacity to meet physical distancing requirements.

On top of that, women have been left with primary responsibility for managing children, including overseeing their school work, through much of the pandemic.

The impacts of the pandemic on women’s economic and employment situations have been immense. RBC’s July 2020 Economics Report noted that the pandemic “knocked women’s participation in the labour force down from a historic high to its lowest level in over 30 years.”

Women were the first to lose their jobs and, for those who remained employed, they have had some of the highest risk work, serving on the front lines in the food service industry as well as providing personal care services to vulnerable populations. Many of the workers who provide care for children, sick or elderly adults or people with disabilities are women who are racialized, new to Canada or working here temporarily.

Young women between the ages of 20 and 24 are exiting the labour force the most quickly due to the pandemic. These are also the women most likely be to be targeted for intimate partner and sexual violence. The loss of economic independence due to job loss makes these women even more vulnerable to being victimized in acts of gender-based violence than they have been in the past. Furthermore, harassment has not stopped just because work has gone online; in fact, it has increased for women working from home.

At the federal level, significant revisions to the Divorce Act and the federal government is working on the development of a 10-year National Action Plan on Gender-Based Violence. Provincially, Ontario has just implemented changes to the Children’s Law Reform Act concerning family violence and parenting arrangements and has introduced new legislation to address human trafficking. While these are good beginnings, there is so much more that is needed to be done.

These kinds of changes require close attention and careful thought through government consultation and collaboration with gender-based violence advocates. We are facing a shadow pandemic that, if not swiftly and adequately addressed, will have long-term detrimental impacts on communities across the country.

With the issue of violence against women in the spotlight as a result of the pandemic, we are calling on the government to reinstate the provincial Violence Against Women Roundtable disbanded by Premier Ford.

Home is not a safe place for everyone. Had the Roundtable still been in place, our expertise could have informed the development of COVID protocols at the beginning of the pandemic, with very different outcomes. Governments don’t make decisions about education, health care, energy or other public policy issues without talking to the experts. Why should addressing violence against women be any different?

For meaningful COVID recovery, we need to centre women, especially those on the margins including but not limited to Black, Indigenous and women of colour. Our voices must be at the leadership tables or it’s not recovery at all. We cannot go back to where we were 30 years ago. We need more, not fewer options for women.