Humanity will remember 2020 as the year of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is the year that people were expected to move their lives online and technology became the main outlet for connection outside the home. This made life more complicated as individuals and institutions had to quickly adapt to new online programs, navigating their personal and professional relationships through digital portals.
As the ability to choose what day-to-day interactions looked like became more limited, women felt the strains of the pandemic in highly gendered ways. Many lost their jobs because their work could not be adapted to online work-from-home positions, or had to reduce their time at work in order to take on the brunt of unpaid care work, including caring for children who were studying at home through virtual learning. By mid-year, Oxfam reported that 71 percent of Canadian women were feeling “more anxious, depressed, isolated, overworked, or ill” because of the additional unpaid care work they were expected to take on following changes from the pandemic.
As women struggled with these additional emotional, physical and financial burdens that exacerbated existing gendered inequalities, they also found themselves at the centre of what the United Nations has dubbed the shadow pandemic. When most countries began enforcing lockdown rules in the spring of 2020, reported rates of gender-based violence increased worldwide, especially the rates of intimate partner violence and technology-facilitated violence.
In Canada, front-line victim service workers saw both the the volume and the severity of gender-based violence surge. Because of pandemic-related restrictions, women were often trapped in the home with their abuser under stressful circumstances with limited access to their normal support systems or means of escape. Further expectations to work, shop and communicate online increased violence in digital spaces as more of women’s lives were directed online and abusers had more time online to perpetuate abuse.
Technology plays a complicated role in the shadow pandemic of gender-based violence. It acts as a potential outlet for women to seek support, but it is also being used as a tool to commit abuse against them and to enact gendered harassment online. It changes the ways that gender-based violence manifests, how it is understood, and the manner in which governments and organizations should support victims of this abuse.