Good afternoon. Hello to all the members of the committee and guests. It is an honour for us to present to the committee today on the specific issues we deal with in violence against women.
I'd also like to say hi to Lise, with whom we've been working on several occasions.
I'm the executive director of the Shield of Athena Family Services. We have provided for the past 30 years a network of multilingual services for victims of conjugal violence. We have three points of service presently. We will be building a fourth transition home, a social housing unit for women, for after their stay at an emergency shelter. We also have a fully developed community outreach department. Annually, we raise awareness to thousands of people on the issues of conjugal violence. This we do in many, many languages.
The global effects of the pandemic from last March—officially, I think it was March 11 when it was announced—until the present have impacted everyone and have disrupted the rhythm of life as we know it. I would like to say thank you to the Government of Canada for all they have done for victims of violence in terms of the COVID payments. We thank them and also our respective provinces very much.
What we've seen during this pandemic is that no one is immune. The most affected, however, are women, and by consequence their children. We think of women with their children as part of a package. The lockdowns and quarantines have affected women's capacity to go to work. They have affected their ability to provide. They have affected their ability to protect themselves and their children and, particularly in the field we work in, to keep themselves safe and out of danger.
In the case of violence against women, we're already dealing with a pandemic. The United Nations had labelled violence against women as a global pandemic way before the health pandemic of COVID began. It had already reached, before COVID, pandemic proportions. What are we speaking of? We're speaking of the lack of access to services, the lack of spaces in shelters, ineffective laws, not enough prevention programs, not enough awareness of the issue of conjugal violence and the minimization of the existence of conjugal violence. Those all existed prior to the global COVID pandemic. What happened when the pandemic hit was that for women victims, already limited in their scope of action, their situation became much more reinforced and much more dangerous due to their isolation with an abusive partner. This same isolation also made it more difficult for them to access information, to call organizations and to plan for an escape.
As well, there was an initial shock with the pandemic that resulted in people not calling. This elicited the various organizations that worked with victims to do outreach programs. I know that we were very heavily involved in outreach programs in many languages. We would tell people, particularly victims, “Look, this is COVID, but you can access the services.” Information is knowledge, and knowledge is power.
There was also the fact that during COVID there were no procedures in place. There was an initial shock with the fact that we were within this pandemic. No procedures were in place. It was very difficult for women to access any services, to go to the police or to go to the hospital, particularly when they were very often living with their enemy.
For years shelters in Quebec have been clamouring that there hasn't been enough space to put women and children in. The emergency shelters have been working at rates of over 100%. In 2018 our shelter was working at a rate of 105%. This lack of space during that time became much more evident with the pandemic.
What does shelter living involve? Shelter living involves community living. It's a communal life, but how do you have community living within the context of a pandemic? It's impossible. Social distancing is impossible. Isolating women is impossible. Many of the shelters are small shelters. They do not have the space for that and they do not have the means. Where you could double up women and children before, you could not do that within the context of a global pandemic. Whatever was underlying in terms of problems with space and resources became even worse with this global pandemic.
Of course, for women of race, for women coming from immigrant communities, for women who presented with severe linguistic and other barriers, the situation of just attaining basic information, never mind accessing resources, became really horrendous because their isolation was even more pronounced.
Despite this situation, shelters and other organizations devised ways to help women get into limited resources. We recommend that more funds go towards expanding spaces for already existing shelters. There's a huge need there. There was a huge need there from before.
By far, however, access to second-step housing was even more difficult. I don't know if you've heard, but in Quebec, from the beginning of the pandemic, from May, we've had 15 murders. Another woman was killed over the past weekend. The purpose of second-step resources is to allow a very secure environment for women leaving emergency shelters. We all know that the violent episodes during the first year are huge at the point of the woman deciding to leave an abusive relationship. They're huge for her and huge for her children.
My question is, why were these resources so slow in coming? If we take our example at the Shield of Athena, it took us 10 years from day one until now to be building a second-step shelter. Procedures are long and arduous. Maybe they can be made lighter. Maybe they can respond more quickly to certain needs that are coming forth regarding violence against women.
In terms of these procedures, I realize that it does not solely have to do with the federal government. There are the provincial actors as well. Working with the Société d'habitation du Québec was horrendous. It took such a long time. There were bureaucratic messes, and so on. Therefore, we recommend just an overview towards seeing what it is that we can do in order to make the situation much better for the women and their children.
The other aspect of going into a second-step resource is, of course, to help the woman attain a situation of autonomy. Autonomy is really hard for women who are victims of conjugal violence. In addition to the financial dependency that we see in the conjugal violence cases, there's also the fear of where do they go to after. A lot of them are single mothers. A lot of them are scared. A lot of them don't speak the language. There are huge issues with attaining autonomy.
Taking that into consideration, we respectfully request that the committee take into consideration that one of the most important issues for victims is their right to some sort of financial indemnization, a recognition in the form of financial assistance for a limited time until they are back on their feet.
We are speaking in Quebec about some emergency funds that can be given to women so that they can expedite matters for themselves to leave abusive situations more quickly, but that's not the issue. That's part of the issue, and this comes from the lack of a global perspective on what we need for conjugal violence. One of the most important issues is that we have to recognize the severity of what conjugal violence is, that it's a social issue, and we have to recognize the status of what being a victim of this type of violence is.
We recommend and respectfully request that the committee take into consideration that a specific allocation, some sort of stipend, be given to victims of conjugal violence, be they single women or single mothers with their children, because all victims of conjugal violence need financial support.
I thank the committee very much for hearing us on this topic.