UBC Faculty Research and Publications

“We’re so limited with what we actually can do if we follow all the rules”: a qualitative study of the impact of COVID-19 public health protocols on violence against women services Wathen, C. N.; Burd, Caitlin; MacGregor, Jennifer C. D.; Veenendaal, Jill; McLean, Isobel; Mantler, Tara


Background Violence against women (VAW) is a major public health problem that grew worse during the COVID-19 pandemic. While all services were impacted by changing pandemic guidance, VAW shelters, as congregate settings with multiple funders and regulators, faced unique challenges. Methods We conducted a qualitative analysis of interviews with 26 women’s shelter staff and eight women accessing care, as well as 10 focus groups (five each at two time points approximately a year apart) involving 24 leaders from VAW and related services in Ontario, Canada. Results We identified eight overlapping themes specific to government and public health COVID-19 regulations and their application in women’s shelters. Overall, inconsistency or lack of clarity in rules, and how they were communicated, caused significant stress for women using, and staff providing, services. Staff and leaders were very concerned about rules that isolated women or replicated other aspects of abusive relationships. Women wanted to understand what options were available and what was expected of them and their children in these spaces. Leaders sought clarity and consistency from their various government funders, and from public health authorities, in the face of ever-evolving directives. As in the broader public, there was often the perception that the rules did not apply equally to everyone, for example, for women of colour using VAW services, or those whose first language was not English. Conclusions In the absence of consistent pandemic guidance and how to implement it, many VAW services devised tailored solutions to balance safety from COVID-19 with women’s physical and emotional safety from abuse and its impacts. However, this was difficult and exhausting. A key policy implication is that women’s shelters are a distinct form of congregate housing; they are very different in terms of services provided, size, type and age of facilities from other congregate settings and this must be reflected in public health directives. Better communication and synchronization of policies among government funders and public health authorities, in consultation with VAW sector leaders, would mean protocols tailored to minimize harm to women and children while protecting health and safety.

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Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)