Thank you so much, Madam Chair. Good afternoon to you and the members of the committee.
The London Abused Women's Centre is a non-crisis, non-residential feminist agency that provides women and girls over the age of 12 who are victims of male violence with immediate access to long-term, woman-centred, trauma-informed service. This includes women and girls who are abused in their intimate partnerships; are trafficked or sexually exploited into the commercial sex trade, including pornography; are sexually assaulted by strangers or acquaintances or via date; and/or are subjected to sexual harassment and torture.
LAWC also provides support and counselling to family members of women and girls who have been trafficked or sexually exploited, who are missing or who have disappeared. Many parents have travelled from cities across this country to London, Ontario, to meet with us at LAWC to help us find their daughters. Without LAWC's support, more than 200 family members would continue every single day to check online ads to see if their daughters were still being advertised to provide violent sexual services to men. They do this because they need to know whether their daughters are alive or dead. During the 2019-20 fiscal year, LAWC provided service to 8,100 women and girls, a 107% increase over previous years.
COVID has significantly impacted the lives of women, girls and all children. Women have been forced to isolate in their homes with their abusers. Imagine, just for one moment, how your lives would be impacted if you were forced to remain in your home while knowing that you would be repeatedly assaulted, raped, tortured, debased and maybe even killed. Now imagine your young children being forced to witness or be exposed daily to the violence their mother is facing. Some of these children may be harmed as they attempt to help their mothers. Others may be murdered along with their mothers. Older children will sometimes gather the younger siblings and take them to their bedroom, where they will pull dresser drawers or chests in front of their bedroom doors to keep their dad away.
During COVID, many agencies, including LAWC, had to close their physical space and work from home, providing online groups and phone counselling. Women trapped in their homes who needed help couldn't call for phone counselling. They couldn't call for the police. They couldn't run to a friend's home. Leaving their abuser under ideal circumstances is very, very difficult. During COVID, it was almost impossible. If they themselves were able to find a way to leave, they wouldn't do so if it meant leaving their children behind. Most women in these situations live under constant threat of being killed or having their children killed. If the police do arrive, thanks to the wonderful alertness and intervention of a neighbour who decides to take action, where will she take those children? The shelters are full. There is no place for women and children to go.
During COVID, we did connect with the London Police Service because we identified that having no place to go was a huge gap. Police need to have a place where they can take women and children immediately, so the London Abused Women’s Centre, in collaboration with the London Police Service, responded by developing a protocol whereby LAWC secured safe hotel rooms so that police could take women and their children immediately to a hotel. LAWC negotiated with the hotel so that police could just drop in there with women day or night, at any time, and LAWC would respond any time by stepping in to provide food cards, clothing, diapers and any other identified needs. We provided counselling and safety planning immediately, and we helped women get to shelters as spaces became open. We helped them find long-term housing.
This was a huge upfront cost to the London Abused Women’s Centre, but we were later supported by the United Way and recently by WAGE through the Canadian Women's Foundation to cover those costs. It certainly was not a perfect solution, but it provided hope when sometimes it was hope that was missing.
Aside from the last two weeks of April and the first two weeks of May, following the femicide in Nova Scotia when LAWC service demands increased by almost 50%, our overall service demands during COVID decreased by 18%, as did the London Police Service's. This was all attributed to the nine weeks when we worked from home. Our physical office was closed to walk-in and drop-in clients and we were not able to provide services to women and girls in youth or adult detention services. Phone and Zoom groups were simply not accessible to women at home with their abusers. COVID kept women hostage in their homes with their abusers. How could women possibly reach out for service when they couldn't even go to the bathroom without asking for permission to do so?
However, LAWC's anti-trafficking program saw a 37% increase in service requests during COVID, notwithstanding the federal government's decision to discontinue to fund our trafficking program in the very middle of COVID. The London community sustained us by providing funding to keep our program open until July 31. Had our community not provided funding to sustain that program temporarily, 650 trafficked and sexually exploited women and girls to whom we have provided long-term service would have had no place to go except back to their traffickers, where they may have ended up in the morgue.
That of course does not bode well for a government that prides itself as being feminist. The fact that the Trudeau government thought it was okay to eliminate funding to all anti-trafficking programs across Canada in the midst of a deadly pandemic is deeply concerning about this government's commitment to women and girls. We find it devastating and appalling.
Trafficking and sexual exploitation did not suddenly disappear or slow down during COVID. It increased. Men who believe they have a right to pay to rape women and girls increased their demand for underage and young women and girls. Sex purchasers fuelled the demand for young girls and women, and it is traffickers who are always at the ready to make sure they have the supply needed to meet this increased demand. COVID was no exception. Traffickers continue to traffic vulnerable young women and underage women from city to city and from hotel to hotel along the 400-series highways.
There is of course no social distancing and no PPE in the sex trade. While those precautions are mandated for health care practitioners exposed to bodily fluids, that would be contrary to the very purpose of the sex industry, which is to allow men unfettered access to rape women and girls.
Men pay more for unprotected sex, and they pay more for the money shot where they can ejaculate on a woman's face. Not only have I not heard any public health official or politician address this, we've heard that too many of them believe that the role of women is to satisfy men, their sexual fetishes and fantasies.
With schools closed, with children at home and parents working from home, we saw an increase in online luring of children. Girls were pressured to strip and masturbate for traffickers. They were young and naive and thought the boy or man online was interested in them. They never expected to be videotaped in various stages of nudity and masturbation.
The videos were uploaded to foreign sites like Pornhub that is operated by MindGeek in Montreal. Horrified and devastated parents called LAWC for help in removing these videos. We have been attempting to do so, working very hard, but the reality is that, once these videos are up, they are easily downloaded and, even when removed from porn sites, they remain forever embedded in somebody's download file.
It's important for you to know that the funding the Trudeau government eliminated for LAWC's anti-trafficking program on behalf.... We served on behalf of the government, and it was eliminated. It cost only $164,000 per year.