Five women have been murdered so far this year in Québec in cases of domestic violence. Femicide—the killing of women for the simple fact of being women—is the most atrocious expression of the continued oppression of women today. The disproportionate effect of the pandemic on women has exacerbated this oppression. Lockdown measures and unemployment have pushed many women into the home, where many are trapped with abusive partners with no respite. This situation has shed light on the continuous pandemic of domestic violence under capitalism.
Most victims of femicide are killed by a family member, an intimate partner, or an acquaintance. In the most recent case in Québec this year, Myriam Dallaire’s ex-boyfriend gruesomely killed her and her mother in their home. In another case, a woman called 911 to report death threats she received from her partner’s ex. The police failed to act following the complaint, which was never officially recorded. Two days after the call, the woman was killed. This is unfortunately par for the course, but the lockdown has only made it more difficult for women at risk of violence to get help.
According to the CBC, organizations that support women found an increase in gender-based violence and domestic violence of 20 to 30 per cent in certain regions of the country since the beginning of March 2020. Between March and December 2020, Ontario’s Assaulted Women’s Helpline recorded 71,000 calls for help, almost double the yearly average of 40,000. Statistics Canada also found a 12 per cent increase in reports of domestic disturbances.
Yvonne Harding of the Assaulted Women’s Helpline reports an increase in the severity of abusive behavior. “Where things maybe were at a level of emotional abuse and verbal abuse, they’ve crossed the line into physical abuse. Where things were already physical, it crossed another line into threats and fear for their safety and their life”, she says. It is not difficult to understand why this is happening. Couples that already have an abusive, controlling, or otherwise unhealthy relationship are spending more time together, under greater pressure, particularly financial pressure. This means that there are more opportunities for abuse to escalate.
Lockdowns and quarantine have left a lot of women isolated in the worst way. Reaching out for help is much harder when your aggressor is with you all day. The pandemic has also made it more difficult for women to interact with friends or even take a trip to the store, activities that could provide some relief in the past.
Despite several national and international reports about the increased cases of domestic violence, resources remain scant. In 2019, 10,000 women were turned away from Québec women shelters due to over capacity. Since the beginning of the pandemic, 71 per cent of women shelters and temporary houses in Canada had to reduce capacity to meet sanitary regulations. Many of them reduced capacity by as much as 50 per cent. The contradiction could not be more obvious. On the one hand, women are corralled with their abusive partner 24/7; and on the other, women in these situations have fewer places to turn to.
Despite this situation, new funding for women’s shelters is completely lacking. Last year, the Québec government pledged $120 million to the violence against women shelters network. But so far, only $5.5 million have been distributed. Throughout the pandemic, the government has refused to invest in the services that matter to average working people like testing and tracing, long-term care facilities, schools, and women shelters. Such hesitance does not exist when it comes to giving money to corporations.
At the beginning of the pandemic Québec pledged $2.5 billion dollars for businesses hurt by COVID. A month later, an additional $150 million was dolled out to the private sector. And just in February of this year, the Coalition for Quebec’s Future (Coalition Avenir Québec, or CAQ) government promised to compensate movie theaters that reopened for the loss of food sales. The reality is that the money exists, it’s just in the hands of private companies and individual capitalists.
But even if the government funded these shelters, we cannot forget that women turn to these shelters as a last resort. These facilities are a band-aid to a much, much larger issue.
As illustrated above, domestic violence is a reality for many women across Canada and it disproportionately affects poor and working women. Women are overrepresented in minimum wage jobs. Women in Canada also make $0.69 for every $1 that men make. The already precarious situation of many women was made worse by the pandemic. For example, women accounted for 63 per cent of all job losses during 2020 while they only make up 47 per cent of all workers. In addition, women dominate the service sector which was the hardest hit by the crisis. This means that even if they did not lose their job, they may have seen a reduction in hours and increased precarization.
In a large proportion of cases, a hundred and one financial strings tie women to violent partners. They are dependent on their aggressors for basic necessities like food and shelter. This is not even considering the psychological ties created by the social expectations of having a family and a nice domestic life that may prevent a woman from leaving an abusive relationship. The choice an increasing number of women are confronted with is thus: either die of hunger, of COVID, or be killed by your partner.
This is the reality that a system where production is for profit has to offer to women. On the one hand, women’s ability to access their most bare needs is based on their ability to pay for them. On the other hand, capitalism’s constant pursuit for profit means that the system actually benefits from the oppression of women. Having a layer of the population who is paid less allows the capitalists to extract more surplus value from them. And lower wages for one section of the workers puts a downward pressure on the wages of all workers, allowing the capitalists to pocket more profits at the end of the day.
Even when we are out of confinement, no way out is guaranteed for working class and poor women in abusive relationships under capitalism. For this reason, Marxists fight for the socialist transformation of society. A society where production is for human need and not private greed would guarantee everyone’s most basic needs are met. This would significantly reduce women’s financial dependence on men. Such a society would raise women’s position to be equal to men, not just in words but in deeds. This society would create the basis for a new relation between men and women, free from all financial and social pressures. Only under socialism will women be free from men, and both free from capital.