COVID-19: An Intimate Partner Violence Flashpoint in Racialized Communities

Disclaimer: The term “women” is used in this article in reference to any female-identifying individuals, and the term “men” is used to refer to any male-identifying individuals.  This author recognizes that there are subsections of these categories with differential lived experiences that might not be adequately addressed by this article, but which are extremely important and worthy of further discussion.

What is the significance of IPV in the context of COVID-19?

Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) is defined by the World Health Organization as “behaviour by an intimate partner or ex-partner that causes physical, sexual, or psychological harm, including physical aggression, sexual coercion, psychological abuse and controlling behaviours” (9).  Global statistics have shown a dramatic increase in IPV, specifically violence against women, during the COVID-19 pandemic, which the United Nations has referred to as the “shadow pandemic” (8).  Canada’s Assaulted Women’s Helpline reported fielding 20,334 calls between Sept. 1 and Dec. 31, 2020, compared to 12,352 over the same period in 2019, demonstrating the increasing cries for help during this IPV “shadow pandemic” (5). 

In Canada, social distancing measures, restriction of movement, and service closures have been implemented by the government in an effort to reduce COVID-19 transmission. While necessary, trickle-down effects associated with the pandemic and the measures necessary to fight it have led to population increases in fear, stress, financial and employment insecurity.  In  many cases, this has led to the progression of various power control tactics associated with IPV, such as: 

  • Withholding of health cards and other important documents and identification;
  • Controlling access to information (television, radio, news, phones);
  • Controlling communication with children and other family members;
  • Limiting ability of women to distance themselves from their abusers;
  • Controlling access to family finances and resources (4).

Why are women in racialized communities at higher risk for IPV in Canada?

Despite prevailing discourse, women are experiencing the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic differently than men.  In many ways, the pandemic has heightened the historical inequities that exist between men and women, and has emphasized social determinants of health that place women and girls at a disadvantage.   Women are more likely to be victims of the economic upheaval caused by widespread closures to prevent COVID-19 transmission because they are more likely than men to work in informal or precarious jobs, and perform the majority of unpaid caregiving labour in the home (8).

Other risk factors during the COVID-19 pandemic that put women and girls at higher risk of IPV include:

  • Unemployment (economic distress);
  • Social isolation;
  • Household stress (cause by shelter-in-place, financial concerns, etc.);
  • Parental stress;
  • Substance misuse (6, 7)

Race is a risk factor for negative health outcomes during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as increased rates of IPV due to the following manifestations of systemic racism:

  • Inequitable access to medical care and/or culturally appropriate health advice;
  • Inadequate housing;
  • Precarious employment;
  • Mistrust in health institutions, leading to lack of COVID-19 screening and reduction in likelihood of seeking support/family services;
  • Lack of availability of/access to family services ;
  • Stresses associated with overt racial biases, such as anti-Asian sentiments that have been brought to the fore since the inception of the COVID-19 pandemic (3)

Intersectionality is a term used as an analytical tool to define, study, and respond to the contributions of and relationships between identity markers such as gender, race, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, migration status, etc. (2).  Racialized women in Canada are more likely to experience the confluence of the risk factors described above, making it harder for them to weather the unique and significant challenges they face, including but not limited to IPV, during the COVID-19 pandemic.   This has been described as “syndemic”, or “a cluster of two or more epidemics and the various factors that precipitate their interaction within a population”.  The pre-existing pandemics of gender-based violence and systemic racism have coalesced within the COVID-19 pandemic, putting the health and well-being of racialized women at particular risk (5).

How can we address IPV in racialized communities?

Evidence-based approaches to addressing the specific needs of women in racialized communities are required to remove or lessen inequalities they face, specifically those related to the stresses imposed by COVID-19 and its effect on increasing rates of IPV in Canada.  Some important elements of these approaches are outlined below. 

Social Considerations in Service Provision:

    • Increasing shelter capacity;
    • Increasing access points for family services and supports;
    • Emphasis on the delivery of culturally safe and competent care that addresses nuanced needs of various racialized communities;
    • Increasing helplines, online counselling, technology-based supports.

Strengthening Community and Family Supports:

    • Campaigns to increase awareness of IPV in racialized communities;
    • Incorporating gender-based violence training among front-line workers and in the healthcare system;
    • Supporting social and community networks to reduce social isolation and increase community supports.

Social Considerations in Basic Services and Security:

    • Pandemic responses taking into account gendered roles and dynamics, and adoption of gender- and race-sensitive programming;
    • Designation of IPV and gender-based violence as key pandemic issues to address in COVID-19 responses;  
    • Involvement of community stakeholders in community support and response plans;
    • Dedicated support and security programming and funding for racialized women and girls (1).

Author  | Marielle Balanaser (Gender-Based Violence Portfolio)


  1. Bohr, Yvonne et al. 2020. “INITIAL KNOWLEDGE SYNTHESIS REPORT (22 June 2020).” : 36.
  2. Crenshaw, K. (1989). Mapping the margins: intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. The public nature of violence: the discovery of domestic abuse. Stanford Law Review, 43(6), 93-117.
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  6. Onyango, M. (2020 May 10). Sexual and gender-based violence during COVID-19: Lessons from Ebola. The Conversation.
  7. Roush, K. (2020). A safety paradox. Off the Charts blog of the American Journal of Nursing.
  8. United Nations Women. (2020). Violence against women and girls: the shadow pandemic. Retrieve from 
  9. World Health Organization (WHO). (2020a). Violence against women. Retrieve from
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