The most recent statistics in Canada report that a woman or girl is killed by violence every two days. During the COVID-19 pandemic, femicides rose astronomically as lockdowns and unemployment forced women to remain home with abusive partners with no respite. In its aftermath, the situation has not meaningfully improved for those leaving abuse, and may in fact have gotten worse, as inflation makes escape nearly impossible for survivors.

Nonprofit domestic violence shelters exist all over Canada, providing survivors with a place to go as they get back on their feet. Very little is publicly known about the inner workings of these shelters, for reasons of confidentiality. These resources, however, are strained to the brink with the deepening crisis of capitalism. For example, because they’re private nonprofits, each shelter dedicates a portion of their funding towards marketing and fundraising, so as to be competitive in their search for donations. Meanwhile, wages are low and working conditions difficult, which lead to burnout and a high turnover rate. 

Communist Revolution sat down to interview a frontline shelter worker to discuss how the current economic crisis is disproportionately impacting working class women, particularly the most oppressed layers. 

Communist Revolution: To start, can you explain generally how economic inequality comes into play for women who seek shelter?

Shelter worker: Capitalism maintains gender inequality. We see women who come here who are financially dependent on their partners, which makes it quite difficult for them to leave. Being financially dependent on a partner also makes it significantly harder for women to get back on their feet because they need to find employment, they need to find a source of revenue – most often, they have to go through welfare, but welfare is extremely limited. Some of them haven’t pursued education, and so will need to pursue professional training to find a job, and, even then, employment opportunities are still quite limited. Due to the gender pay gap, women will have a harder time making the same salary with the same amount of education. Women start at a baseline that is lower than their male partners, generally.

And there is a lot you can’t do while you’re on welfare: you can’t be outside the province for more than 14 days, you can’t own property, you can’t work more than 4 hours per week, you can’t make more than $200 per month – which is just a few hours per month. No one wants to hire someone who can only do so few hours. Your sponsor has to accept to pay back the welfare, which is complicated if your sponsor is your abuser. There are very strict conditions around how much you can have in savings while being a welfare recipient, how much your car can be worth. So welfare is really limited.

We also have a lot of immigrant women here, people who have newly arrived. The stress of immigration and the obstacles to make a living put a lot of stress on the relationship, which amplifies situations of violence. The state doesn’t help—we hear firsthand here how women are hesitant to call the police, fearing increased violence from their partners, or trouble because they have no papers. Some of these immigrant women have not studied due to different cultural norms, but even if they have studied they have a difficult time getting their diplomas recognized here in Canada. This is a significant challenge we face in shelter: diploma recognition and employment opportunities. 

Childcare is also challenging, because asylum seekers are not entitled to subsidized daycare in Quebec. Non-subsidized daycare will come out to $800 per month, and thus for many people it makes more sense for one parent to stay home to watch the children while another parent works. This means that the stay-at-home parent, usually the mother due to traditional gender roles, is deprived of work experience, making it harder to get a job when they leave the relationship.

All of these factors combined fuel domestic violence and make an already very difficult situation even worse.

CR: How did the pandemic impact your ability to do your job, and how did it impact the people who came to shelter? How has the situation changed since?

SW: Any shelter was much more restricted. Women and their children would be confined to their rooms upon arrival to isolate, and if someone tested positive. Capacity was cut; less women were allowed in shelter so that social distancing rules could properly be followed—so even women who wanted to escape couldn’t do so, as sometimes no beds were available anywhere. All of the pandemic rules made for a difficult experience for the women in shelter, and some went back to their partners and were deterred from returning to shelter. It was a stressful environment for the women as well as the workers. I remember feeling very overwhelmed and very was a collective trauma that made it difficult for workers to even be present for the women. If it was difficult for us, it must have been nearly impossible for the survivors—who had to cope with the pandemic as well as recover from their abuse, and deal with feelings of loneliness and the stress of parenting alone.

Now, more shelters opened up their closed rooms, but we are still quite short-staffed and this makes operating at full capacity very taxing on the workers. 

CR: Everyone is dealing with the consequences of inflation right now – the increased prices of rent, food, mortgages and the like. How has this crisis impacted people in situations of domestic violence, the clients in shelter and the frontline workers?

SW: A lot of clients can’t find affordable housing, that’s the main thing we see. There is also a lot of discrimination by landlords towards the women in domestic violence and welfare recipients; on the private market, it is common to ask for pay stubs and bank statements. They are not empathetic to women who are on welfare because they’ve suffered horrific violence; one landlord told my client to not even bother coming to see the apartment. Landlords will say, “I am looking for someone who is actually working” or “I have a lot of applicants who make way more than what you make a year”.

Sometimes landlords ask women to pay the first month’s rent in advance, which is difficult if a woman just moved out of shelter, because it is expensive to move. Some landlords even ask for more than the first month’s rent, and illegally ask for a rent payment or a deposit with the application, or $150 to do a credit score check. Sometimes the women get frauded and scammed this way, especially if they are new to Canada.

We see an extreme amount of scamming right now, especially with apartments. Some of the women here are just beginning to learn how to budget because their abuser controlled all the finances in the house. There are also some women who have very bad credit scores, because their partner mismanaged the household money in the woman’s name and on her cards, or deliberately ruined her credit score as a way to control her. Credit score is a huge obstacle to finding an apartment, and so women are forced to disclose why their credit score is so low if they want a chance at getting an apartment. However, instead of getting compassion out of the landlord, what we see very frequently is that the landlord backs off. It is also very hard to get a job if you don’t have an address, so all of these things play into each other. 

With the cost of living increasingly going up, life is unaffordable even for people who don’t work minimum wage. We can’t seem to find low-income women an independent living option. Everything is completely unaffordable on the private market, especially if you factor the cost of food if you have one or two children.  

CR: What tangible changes could be made to make your job easier and reduce the incidences of violence we see, and help survivors get on their feet?

SW: We should have easier and quicker access to housing resources by increasing the amount of emergency and subsidized housing available. We need a first responder for conjugal violence that isn’t the police. We should have state compensation schemes for victims of abuse, and simpler processes for paying therapists through this compensation scheme. We also need those resources available for immigrant women—the government should give them access to subsidized housing and daycare regardless of citizenship status.Domestic violence is only one manifestation of the oppression of women which is inherent to capitalism. To read more of Communist Revolution’s articles on women’s oppression in Canada, click here. To read about the origins of women’s oppression and how to achieve women’s liberation, click here.