For many women and children around the world, the social distancing and isolation that’s saving their lives is exactly what’s putting their lives in danger. As countries continue enforcing restrictions on movement to flatten the COVID-19 pandemic curve, we are seeing a global surge in domestic violence, as reported by the United Nations. Some countries are instituting policies and procedures for women to seek help during this time. A prime example is France, where it’s been reported that women who are unable to call for help have been using a code word, “mask 19”, to pharmacists if they were accompanied by their abuser.
When it comes to domestic violence, though, what we’re mostly exposed to in the news are numbers, figures, statistics on how frequent it is, facts that are devoid of the reality of what it’s like to live under such conditions –conditions that are created by a person with whom the woman, or the child, has a personal relationship with. Furthermore, what we don’t learn from these stiff facts is how to support a friend, a family member, or a co-worker who is experiencing this reality, someone who is one of those numbers.
Before delving into how to support a woman who’s experiencing domestic violence, it is important to note that vulnerabilities are not all the same; certain elements create situations where it is more difficult for some women to leave abusive relationships, such as isolation, precarious immigration status, having children with the abuser, financial dependence, language barrier, and more. Moreover, the intersectionality of race, religion, ethnicity, ability, and sexual identity change a woman’s experience within the justice system and puts them in a position of facing more difficulties within the legal system. Learning about these circumstances enables us to offer better support.
So, how do we support a woman who’s being abused?
Number One: Listen
Listening may seem simple enough, but it’s not so easy. When a woman begins to recount details of violence she has experienced, or continues to experience, it may be difficult for us to hear. But sometimes –quite often, really-, it is the most important part of supporting a woman., Listen without judgement and be wary of victim-blaming. Saying things such as, “how could you stay with him”, “you should call the police right now”, or “but you have children!” places the blame on the woman for the abuse, even if we are well-intentioned.
Number Two: Don’t instruct a woman on what to do
We live in a culture of advice-giving, which is not necessarily a bad thing. But in this situation, only give it if the woman asks –if she doesn’t, go back to Number One. Giving unsolicited advice takes away from the sense of control that the woman has already lost in the abusive relationship. Furthermore, it places you in the position of “expert” in her life, which is a position nobody has but her. It is not only fruitless, it will also likely hinder your relationship with this woman.
Number Three: Ask
Ask the woman how you can support her. Questions such as “what do you need?”, “what can I do?”, and “how can I help”, give the locus of control back to the woman and gives her the right to choose what she would like to do –or not do.
Number Four: Give advice when asked, but don’t be mad if your advice isn’t followed
It takes a long time for someone to leave an abusive relationship. It is not as easy as calling the police, especially if their status in the country is dependent on a spousal sponsorship, or if they and their children are financially dependent on the abuser, or if the woman is struggling with a language barrier that the abuser does not have. It is especially not easy to come forward since we live in a society that often does not believe women. Therefore, if asked, offer resources, but don’t withdraw your support if the woman does not seek these resources.
Number Five: Safety plan
Ask if she is wants to come up with a safety plan. If she agrees, co-create a plan that will ensure her safety. It could be anything, from creating a code word that means call 911, to consistent check-ins, informing a neighbour in case the authorities need to be reached should they hear sounds coming from the woman’s house, keeping a list of necessary resources with you should the woman like to access them (see below for such a list), or keeping copies of ID’s. Again, this plan should be co-created with the woman.
Number Six: Continue your support
Even if the woman leaves the abuser, continue your support. Women often go back to the abusive relationship when faced with more difficulty without it, often from the intersectionality of complications listed above. Therefore, to alleviate or ease the fear and uncertainty that the woman is living with outside of said relationship, continue your support even after the woman has left.
Finally, Number Seven: When in doubt, call and ask
Crisis lines and support networks exist not only for women experiencing violence, but for people who are offering support as well. If you’re not sure what to do, contact one of the below mentioned services and ask.
“I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.” -Audre Lorde
Supports for survivors of domestic violence:
Ontario Assaulted Women’s Help Line: 1-866-863-0511 OR 1-866-863-7868
Unsafe At Home –Text & Chat Service
Unsafe at Home Ottawa is a secure text and online chat service for women who may be living through increased violence and abuse at home during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Child, Youth & Family Crisis Line: 613-260-2360
Immigrant Women Services Ottawa: 613-729-3145
Ottawa Hospital: Sexual Assault and Partner Abuse Care Program: 613-761-4366
Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre: 613-562-2334
The Counselling Group of Jewish Family Services:
Nadeen Almubarak is a Registered Psychotherapist with The Counselling Group’s Refugee and Newcomer Program. She works with individuals through a cultural and resilience informed lens, in both English and Arabic.
The Counselling Group offers a variety of experienced therapists who can support positive changes and growth in your life. For more information, please visit the counsellinggroup.com or call 613-722-2225 x352 to speak with an intake worker today. We are offering appointments remotely at this time and are available to speak with you for new requests.