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Gillian’s Place and Women’s Place team up for "Still Here Niagara"

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As gender-based violence continues to see an increase during the COVID-19 pandemic, Niagara women's shelters are telling the public that they haven't gone anywhere and are here to help.

Gillian’s Place and Women’s Place of South Niagara have teamed up to create “Still Here Niagara,” a campaign combining their three shelters.

Nicole Regehr, director of development and violence prevention programs at Gillian’s Place, said the campaign was inspired by a similar program in Toronto that combined a number of violence against women agencies.“It’s been a misconception among a lot of our communities that the shelters are closed during times of lockdown,” said Regehr. “Or there may be a misconception that they’re unsafe due to COVID-19. We really feel, especially knowing there has been a 30-per-cent increase in rates of gender-based violence, we want to make sure that everybody in our region that needs help knows how to access it.

“In addition to safe shelters for those who are experiencing violence and abuse in their homes, some people may not be ready to leave or are not in position to come to the shelter, but we provide such a wide spectrum of other services to support people who are remaining in their homes,” said Regehr.

Regehr said while they do see a decrease in the number of people using the shelters during the lockdown, they see an increase in other areas such as the text support line. Regehr said use of the text line has increased tenfold.

“Women pre-pandemic would reach out to us while their partner was out or at work,” said Regehr. “Now, stuck in a home with them 24 hours a day, they’re not able to find that space to either leave or make a phone call, so texting is a little easier to do.”

Regehr said other front-line workers across the country have seen an increase in the severity of violence. She said they’ve reported more strangulations, broken bones, visits to hospital, and near-death violent episodes.

“At the very beginning of the pandemic, we saw an increase in domestic homicides. The pandemic has created a pressure cooker, a perfect storm. Isolation is already a tactic that abusers use to maintain control over their victims; now they don’t even have to work at that isolation; it’s already there.”

A total of 336 calls were made in that same time frame the previous year.

The Niagara Sexual Assault Centre had 170 new requests for counselling over the past fiscal year.

While therapists have been able to continue to provide counselling over the phone and via Zoom, for some survivors, the pandemic has created too many barriers for them to seek help right now.

“Some survivors have no private space or internet access in their home to do virtual therapy and are worried about exposure to the virus if they go out,” said Suzanne Mason, from the Sexual Assault Centre.

Isabel Beland, a therapist at the centre, said financial pressures, including not being able to afford cellphone minutes, a bus ticket or child care, are also barriers.

A media release from the province said one in three women and one in six men will experience sexual violence in their lifetime. Women are three times more likely to be stalked and four times more likely to be a victim of intimate partner violence.

Indigenous women and girls are even more likely to be victims of assault, as are other racialized, minority and vulnerable communities.

STORY BEHIND THE STORY: With reports of gender-based violence increasing during the COVID-19 pandemic, reporter Abby Green spoke with people from local shelters to show how they're still here to help victims.

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