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'Never the survivor's fault': Sexual violence continues its pandemic spike, says Newmarket’s Women’s Support Network

Crisis line calls have increased by 50 per cent in last year-and-a-half, says executive director

York Region’s only sexual violence centre is raising awareness about the prevalence of sexual violence in the community as part of Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. 

Newmarket’s Women’s Support Network of York Region is offering ongoing educational and interactive programs about the issues surrounding sexual violence and how necessary resources, like counselling and crisis lines, can be accessed.

Upcoming virtual events include a French gender-based violence services session May 27, a legal public education session focused on sexual violence, domestic violence, and intimate partner violence May 31, and legal drop-in sessions June 14, July 12 and Aug. 9.

All programs are free, confidential, and non judgmental. Those interested can register online.

“We really want the community to know that sexual assault is never the survivor’s fault,” said Jacqueline Benn-John, executive director of Women’s Support Network. “We also want them to know that during a pandemic, like what we are facing now, sexual assault and other forms of violence continue. There are supports available.”

Women, youth, and children have faced unique risks throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Research conducted by the Canadian Red Cross and international Red Cross organizations found that domestic violence tends to increase after disasters — like pandemics — because negative shocks like personal loss and financial hardship have an impact upon social factors like family and gender. When stress causes a loss of control, people tighten their authority at home — the one place where they feel they still have power.

Substance abuse, too, rises in times of crisis, causing higher incidences of violence between family members and higher incidences of sexual violence between non-family members.

The added complication of COVID-19 lockdowns means victims of domestic violence are often isolated with their abusers for extended periods of time.

For vulnerable people desperately seeking work, it can mean being forced to endure sexual harassment in the workplace.

“With an increase in gender-based violence, shelters have been overwhelmed with an increase in cases and many don’t have enough spaces,” said Benn-John. “Then there’s the additional complexities if they have to close due to COVID-19 lockdowns and can’t have anyone in.”

As a non-residential, community-based program, Women’s Support Network has provided support throughout the pandemic. Over the past year and a half, they have experienced a 50 per cent increase in calls to their 24-hour crisis line and a 16 per cent increase in individuals seeking counselling.

To best serve those who can’t speak over the phone for safety reasons, Women’s Support Network has introduced an online chat service. They’ve also partnered with the Community Legal Clinic of York Region to provide ongoing online legal advice, and have tailored programs, including those upcoming, to target diverse members of the community.

“We’ve tried to be creative around how to offer our supports in a way that’s discreet, confidential, safe, and non-judgmental,” said Benn-John. “We’ve had to adapt so much.”

It’s also important to seek support to heal from trauma that happened in the past, said Benn-John.

“We want awareness to be there,” said Benn-John. “People can access the supports they need, and we can continue to tailor our programs and services to the very diverse members of our community in York Region.”