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How did the pandemic impact violence against women services, what did women experience while accessing them, and how can providers, policymakers, and funders best respond in future?

Alexa Yakubovich is looking at those questions as one of three Dalhousie University researchers who recently received Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR) funding for projects focused on the pandemic’s impact on vulnerable populations.

“The pandemic has increased how many women are experiencing violence, but also the severity of the violence that women are experiencing,” Yakubovich said in an interview.

She pointed to public health restrictions that made it difficult for women to access services, particularly when they were isolating at home with violent partners or violent family members.

“That obviously impacts the support that women can get, but it also can impact how long they’re in these situations for, and how violent and extreme it can get,” she said.

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Dalhousie University professor and researcher Alexa Yakubovich. Photo: Contributed

Yakubovich received $500,000 in CIHR funding for her study, ‘Identifying and contextualizing best practices in responding to violence against women during the COVID-19 pandemic.’ It builds upon a community-based project she worked on at the MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions in Toronto at the beginning of the pandemic.

“It was such a powerful and impactful project that when I moved to Dalhousie in the fall, there was a real interest in expanding,” she said.

‘Really severe cases of violence’

That Toronto-based research project is ongoing, and an overview of results is expected to be publicly available by the end of May. Yakubovich said this latest study will build on that study, broadening its focus to include the entire province of Ontario as well as both Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

“Service providers (in Toronto) told us about how they were seeing a lot more clients with really severe cases of violence where weapons were being used, very severe physical or sexual violence, really extreme coercive control, and also just worse outcomes in terms of not being able to access housing, struggling in terms of getting appropriate health care,” Yakubovich said.

“That’s the kind of thing that we were able to uncover in that study, and we really want to delve in more, looking at this interprovincially.”

Yakubovich said the interprovincial nature of the study will also allow them to consider how provincial and municipal policies impact the experiences of survivors and the services that support them.

In addition, public health rules created many challenges. Examining experiences across all three provinces will help researchers better understand how to improve the relationship between public health and violence against women services.

“I’m really, really interested in the public health piece because the public health strategies towards COVID-19 were quite different between the Maritimes and Ontario,” she said.

The differences between urban and rural experiences are also a point of interest.

While there are challenges and gaps in the delivery of services in rural areas, Yakubovich said rural areas are likely better equipped to offer remote service delivery. She believes there’s much to learn from rural areas in terms of their strategies, particularly when compared to a city like Toronto where many organizations had to implement remote services for the first time.

“I think there’s going to be a lot to learn, and this interprovincial aspect of the project is a really unique opportunity to delve into those comparisons,” she said.

‘One of the most prevalent health issues for women’

Besides researchers from Dalhousie University, the University of New Brunswick, University of Toronto, and St. Michael’s and Women’s College hospitals in Toronto, project collaborators include advocates, service providers, and leaders from community organizations.

Researchers will also speak with women from all three provinces who are experiencing violence and accessing services during the pandemic.

The research has implications beyond the pandemic and future public health emergencies. One in three women experience violence from an intimate partner, and Yakubovich said it is the greatest determinant of women’s injury and disease internationally.

“When we think about this being one of the biggest public health issues for women and the fact that the pandemic has impacted both the experience of violence and the ability of women to access supports available to them, it becomes clear that it’s really just as important when we’re thinking about how to improve population health to be thinking about violence against women services as we’re thinking about COVID-19,” she said.

“We really need to know these services are chronically underfunded. They were hard hit from the pandemic. How can we actually improve them in order to reduce one of the most prevalent health issues for women?”

Yakubovich hopes to publish some preliminary results from this latest study in the summer, and encourages any women who fit the criteria and who want to participate to reach out to her via Twitter or email.

“Since we did our data collection from Toronto, our societal perspective on the pandemic has shifted. I think a lot of us have stopped looking at it as this short term blip and we’ve realized that it’s really changed our lives forever,” Yakubovich said.

“This study does want to look at how we can better prepare for future public health emergencies, but we’re also looking at this as ‘The service landscape has forever been changed by the pandemic.’ So, it’s not only about what we do in an emergency, but what has changed and how can we change with it in the best way possible.”

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Yvette d'Entremont

Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor, covering the COVID-19 pandemic and health issues. Twitter @ydentremont

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