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People hold signs as they march prior to a candlelight vigil held in honour of Rebekah Love Harry, a victim of domestic violence, in Montreal on April 3.CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/Reuters

The number of women who were victims of homicide has risen in Canada over the past two years, according to preliminary data that researchers say reflect an increase in lethal domestic violence caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The spike – with 92 women killed in the first six months of this year, an increase from 78 in the first half of 2020, and 60 in the first half of 2019 – corroborates a deadly trend that many anti-violence groups have warned about since the start of the pandemic.

As activists mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on Thursday, the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability warns the deadly trend could continue through 2022 – particularly as the fallout of the pandemic continues to affect women disproportionately.

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“When there is a disaster, women are typically impacted more profoundly than men, materially speaking and in terms of experiences of violence. They are closely connected,” said Myrna Dawson, executive director of the observatory and an expert on domestic violence. “These impacts don’t stop as soon as a disaster is under control. They’re felt for decades. And so I think there’s a real concern about what we’re going to do about that.”

This is not just a Canadian problem, but a global one, said Prof. Dawson, who is also the director of the University of Guelph’s Centre for the Study of Social and Legal Response to Violence – and it is only the tip of the iceberg.

“We’ve often seen homicide or femicide as a barometer of what’s going on that we can’t see,” Prof. Dawson said. “And so if we see that this is increasing in fatal violence, then it’s likely that this is also going on with non-fatal violence, but we aren’t seeing it as much because it’s not resulting in a woman’s death.”

Police forces across the country have reported increases in the number of calls related to domestic violence. Social services, too, have cited an increase in the severity of the violence women are experiencing during the pandemic.

NousToutes (All of us) activists hold candles to pay tribute to victims after the 100th and 101st femicides of the year in France, in front of the Pantheon mausoleum in Paris on Nov. 16.JULIEN DE ROSA/AFP/Getty Images

But while lockdown orders and restricted access to social supports have played a role, Prof. Dawson said this increase in femicides began before COVID-19.

“The pandemic doesn’t turn non-violent men into violent men,” Prof. Dawson said. “It’s made situations worse.”

Families and couples have been forced into closer proximity for longer stretches of time amid frustrations over unemployment and restrictions on services. And while women (who are disproportionately victimized in domestic and intimate-partner violence) might have previously developed strategies to keep themselves and their children safe from abusive partners or relatives, those supports or outlets would likely have become more difficult to access over the past two years.

The femicide observatory, which is run out of the University of Guelph, tracks cases of women and girls dying by violence across the country in an effort to learn more about how these deaths occur and what can be done to prevent them. The nuances of individual homicide cases can be difficult to capture in this way, because the researchers rely on local media reports and police news releases – which often do not include much detail.

Relatives and friends of victims of femicide hold a march called 'Voices of the Absence' in memory of their loved ones and to demand justice in Mexico City on Nov. 3.EDGARD GARRIDO/Reuters

Of the 2021 femicide cases so far, the observatory has been able to discern the relationship between the victim and her alleged killer in 61 per cent of cases. In 37 per cent of cases, the accused was a current or former intimate partner. In 15 per cent of cases, the accused was a family member. In 1 per cent, it was an acquaintance, and in 8 per cent, a stranger.

“Where we knew the relationship, the largest group was still intimate-partner homicide, followed by other family [members],” Prof. Dawson said.

For example, she said, another concerning trend is sons killing their mothers.

The federal government’s Speech from the Throne on Tuesday cited the “unacceptable rise in violence against women and girls” during the pandemic so far, and noted a commitment to moving forward with a 10-year national action plan on gender-based violence.

In an e-mailed statement on Wednesday, Marci Ien, Minister of Women and Gender Equality and Youth, called gender-based violence “a public health risk, a national security concern, a serious human rights violation, and a significant barrier to gender equality in Canada.”

She also acknowledged the disproportionate violence faced by certain populations, including Black, Indigenous and racialized women as well as LGBTQ people and those living in rural or remote communities.

RAQUEL CUNHA/Reuters

Top: A woman dressed as Catrina takes part in the 'March of the Catrinas' to protest against femicide and violence against women in Mexico City on Nov. 1. Above: Emotional activists honour victims of femicide as part of Day of the Dead in La Paz, Bolivia, on Nov. 1.CLAUDIA MORALES/Reuters

“Our government has committed almost $300-million to support Canadians experiencing gender-based violence during and beyond the pandemic,” she said, noting that the 2021 budget also includes $601.3-million over five years to work toward the national action plan.

Prof. Dawson stressed the importance of long-term planning and funding, on top of emergency responses. In addition to focusing on issues such as accessible child care and employment stimulation to help women return to the work force, she says there must also be a recognition that women will continue to face violence.

“Even when we start to feel like we’re living normally again, the impacts of what the pandemic has done … are going to reverberate for a series of years,” she said. “Women are still going to be experiencing violence. So we need to have sustained investments in the agencies that are trying to help them.”

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