Paige Smith 0:03
Hello, everyone, welcome to the sixth episode of our Below the Radar Conversation Series. Today we talked with Angela Marie McDougall, Executive Director of Battered Women's Support Services here in Vancouver, Canada. With our host Am Johal, she discusses how COVID-19 is affecting gender inequality and violence within intimate relationships.
Am Johal 0:26
Hi, good morning, Angela. Thank you so much for joining us on Below the Radar. I'm wondering if we could just begin by you, if you could introduce yourself a little bit.
Angela Marie MacDougall 0:38
For sure. Thank you Am, thank you for this opportunity. Yeah, I'm Angela Marie MacDougall. Among other things, I'm executive director at Battered Women's Support Services.
Am Johal 0:47
Okay great, and can you share a little bit about the range of services that BWSS provides?
Angela Marie MacDougall 0:55
Mhm, yeah, well, in order to talk about the services, I think it'd be good to talk about why Battered Women's Support Services exists. There were six women that decided way back in 1979 to take action on male violence against women in relationships. And this was around the same time, interestingly, I'd say there was a lot of progressive things happening in the late 70s, early 80s, particularly around addressing gender based violence, and violence against women. And there were a lot of feminist organizations that were, you know, sprouting here and there that were formerly formalizing and, and focused on working for progressive social change in terms of gender relationships, and looking at inequality in relationships. And so, the six women that were a part of the forming of battered women's support services back then, they were really clear about wanting to, in a broad sense, working to end inequality and to redress and address violence in relationships. And that was the goal, was to end it and that continues to be our goal is to work toward a society, a world where there are that we have equity, and where gender relationships are amicable and that and intimate relationships don't, don't include violence, abuse, or inequality. And so that's our overarching goal and then the other goal that the woman had at the time was then to deliver support groups. Part of what they recognized and we continue to recognize today is the ways in which isolation is a key factor of power and control that an abusive partner will use in a relationship. And so the founding members of battered women's support services recognize the importance of getting women out of their houses, and into a circle, where then women can talk and share their experiences and can have, can hear their story, and how similar their experiences are with others, and to know that they're not alone. And so alleviating isolation was really core and so support groups were the one of the main services that the women started with, that we continue today. And as a matter of fact, one of the key groups that we offer is a Tuesday afternoon support group that's been operating for over 40 years and it's a drop in, and it's a way for women to come together and to grow and learn and to alleviate isolation.
The other key service that we started back in the, you know, the early—late 1970s, early 1980s—was training, training, peer support, which is the idea that it's women, we all have an experience of inequality, equity and to and to take action and support other women. And so train women in order to facilitate support groups, to provide crisis response. We've been offering training, offering a training operating training program for 40 years. And so between the support groups and the training program that forms our key role, our key services. What's happened since is that then our crisis line formed, and our crisis line has become a very important resource for the community and the crisis line up until very recently was operating during the day during the week and we through the crisis line primarily we respond to over 18,000 requests for service. Which is anyone that's dealing with an abusive relationship, or perhaps a friend or a family member or co-worker, who is concerned about somebody, and are calling the crisis line in order to gather information. And so we have a trained team that answers the crisis line, and provides support. And so the crisis line, the support groups, the training program, are, are central. And we also offer legal advocacy, which is that we have legal advocates that are experienced in criminal and family, immigration law specifically, and offer support to anybody that is concerned about an abusive relationship and how gendered violence interfaces with the law. So our support workers and our legal advocates are—provide that support that includes accompaniment, information, legal information, and accessing other resources, including lawyers.
And so that is a key, those two aspects, the victim services and legal advocacy are really important. We have an employment program, which assists women that are wanting economic liberation. And what we know is that financial abuse is a key factor and a key tactic of power and control in abusive relationships. And so, you know, so women are, we have an employment program that are staffed with employment counselors, and they are helping women to understand employment options, but also training and formal and informal educational opportunities and accessing those. We have an Indigenous women's program that is, by and for Indigenous women, and it is basically every service that I just described, and delivered by and for Indigenous women. Counseling, we have a counseling program with trained counselors, that are—many are registered clinical counselors, and are providing counseling, trauma-informed counseling. And we offer counseling six days a week. So that's an idea of some of the services that we operate, and as well as our systemic advocacy, it's a big part of what we do, which is about the social change and holding systems accountable. You know, violence in relationships, gender based violence is... it's, it's a big problem, it's a huge social problem. It's been with us for a long time in Canada. It's as we say, the making of Canada as a nation involves baking in some of the inequality that contributes to gender inequality and relationships. And so our work is also to work for that social and systemic change.
Am Johal 7:55
Thank you, Angela. Now, the present COVID-19 period I noticed in the media reports that just your organization itself, has had an alarming increase by 300% of calls into your organization. What are some of the particular challenges that this moment around the pandemic, how that affects the work of your organization, the kind of the needs that are out in the community?
Angela Marie MacDougall 8:22
Right. So this, so we… I guess to talk about this, I need to go back a little bit to… I had the opportunity to go to China last year. I was a part of a group of activists that met with Chinese activists that were doing organizing around Me Too. And so that was quite, quite great. It was pretty, pretty amazing to meet with activists there. And the women that were there are, at the time, were taking action on Me Too. And there were some women that were actually detained and criminalized in China, for organizing around Me Too. So it was this shared experience of trying to work for liberation and address sexual violence, sexual harassment.
And so when COVID-19 hit in China, you know, in the end of November, December, early January, I started to reach out and to pay attention to a woman that I know in China and Beijing, Guangzhou, specifically. And to get a sense of what like, what's going on, like, what, what's going on. And what was clear from the media reports and, you know, what I was hearing was that there was a real recognition that the increased isolation that was a part of COVID-19 was having an impact on women, and that there were maybe not, you know, I mean, there's the question about whether there's increased violence is—there's already a lot of gender based violence, there's already a lot of domestic violence. So this, so I'm not sure that there's been increases. However, the compounding isolation, you know, abusive relationships by design are about isolation. So when we layer over another aspect of isolation, which was a part of the social distancing and quarantining that was being mandated and that's only just started to, I guess, be lessoned right now. I mean, that's the conversation right now is kind of how we're going to live with COVID-19 now. And so what we did back in March was we wanted to get out in front of this, we recognized that there was a real importance of ensuring that there were services available and then letting women know what those services were and getting the word out. So we worked really hard to get the word out. And we used social media. And we're grateful for the media for the mainstream media, and podcasts and other mechanisms that were to get the word out. And then when we got the word out, we started to get calls. And we realized right away that we were going to have to scale up our services. And so we turned our crisis line into a 24 hour crisis line, in a day, we managed to make that happen. And so then the calls per line started to progressively increase. They went, they went up, you know, and they hovered between 200-400%, it's interesting, the long weekends, the call numbers go down on the long weekends, we've had a couple of long weekends since March. And the numbers go down, like over the long weekend. And in general, they've stayed, you know, pretty high. And which is interesting, because you know, what we've heard from some of our colleagues in transition houses where the the numbers have gone down, it's been eerily kind of quiet, and that women aren't reaching out. And so, you know, it really just is a function of understanding the ways in which isolation, the compounding isolation, is a factor for, you know, for women in terms of accessing support.
The other thing that's been kind of pretty glaring, for us anyway, and we definitely wanted to, you know, to draw attention to this was the numbers of women that have been killed, by their partners. And so we've observed that since March, the end of March, the month of April, you know, for about a period of 40 days, there were nine women that were killed by their domestic partners. In Nova Scotia—there's killings there, including, that includes the mass killing, but there was another killing—Ontario, Winnipeg and Alberta. And there's also some other killings of women that we don't have enough information on to kind of categorize it, but there was a girl that was killed in Thunder Bay. There was another woman that was killed in Saskatchewan. And so we haven't, you know, we recognize that lethal violence by men, against women in relationships is a very real, it's real, and it is a factor and it is a part of what is, you know, on the spectrum of, of gender based violence. It's on the you know, it's on the far spectrum. And for every woman that's killed, we know that there are 1000s more that are living in fear. And so we, you know, we continue to keep our foot on the gas, as it were, in order to get the word out and to make sure that services are available and that women know how to access those services.
Am Johal 13:42
Angela, with the schools being out the past few weeks, as well. I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about the particular challenges that you're seeing inside your organizations around that aspect of the restrictions that have been put into place?
Angela Marie MacDougall 14:04
Yeah, you know, this is, this is real, you know, for many of the women that access our services, they you know, they're talking about the pressure of doing the co-, you know, the parenting under quarantine. And then the whole homeschooling and the challenges of that for many women that we—that access our services, they were already really pressured and struggling with, you know, the disparity in the responsibility around child care, and caring for children, and the ways in which children are used as well in an abusive relationship. And so you know, having children at home, you know, just creates this tight kind of pressure cooker scenario where, you know, everybody is very... a lot of anxiety, walking on eggshells, you know, afraid. Because the abusive partner, usually the father, is very, you know, like angry all day long and you know, like, acts out in all kinds of ways. And so, it's created a lot of complexity for mothers, women, in terms of women that access our services and how to support children and how to be with children, and a lot of tension in all of their relationships. There, it's, I would, you know, for many of our callers, that this is very hard. And we've actually heard from young people who have, you know, they've witnessed their mother's abuse, for their whole life, they're young. And they are, you know, they were concerned, and are concerned, about being in this very intense environment, in their families. And so part of what we have, you know, that we've done is to ensure that, you know, our support for children continues through our organization.
Angela Marie MacDougall 16:10
Can you hear that?
Am Johal 16:12
Angela Marie MacDougall 16:12
I live with cats. They're having a moment here.
Yeah, there's this funny, you know, that funny—the woman that was watching the cats behind her and they were fighting, do you see that on YouTube? Yeah. So I'm not quite as unable to ignore them as she could.
Angela Marie MacDougall 16:41
Yeah, you know, the children are struggling. You know, in terms of children that are living in homes where they're witnessing their mother's abuse, they're struggling, there's no question. And the isolation is, you know, really compounds things. It's not easy.
Am Johal 16:56
And if there's someone out there who's listening, is in an abusive situation, or someone knows someone who's in that situation. What can they do here in Metro Vancouver? And what are different services they may be able to access?
Angela Marie MacDougall 17:14
I love that question because it's the, right now, one thing that's been quite unique with COVID-19 is that we're definitely seeing more community engagement on this issue. We've seen more questions, we see more people interested, there's certainly been way more media stories, we've gotten the calls that are reflective of that, as far as people being concerned, coworkers, friends, and family, neighbors and so this is all really, really good. And we're, you know, it's a good it's a good thing, because this is a social problem that we, it's a community problem. And so what I like to tell people to do is, you know, our website has quite a bit of information on it, bwss.org. Our homepage right now is dedicated to all COVID-19 information but beyond that, I mean, so there's lots of links and things there but beyond that, the website has a lot of information about services, transition houses, all across the country. All kinds of things that are important to know, if you're concerned about yourself, or someone that you know. And that's a really good place to start. The other thing that's on our website is a link, there's an article there, kind of a very quick reading, that is how to help a friend. And it's how to, it's a list of things that you can do, how to help a friend. And you know, it's a chance to reflect on a way to be supportive and to connect a friend with supports. The other thing that's on the website which is really, really good is safety planning. There is a law tool that can be broken down into basically depending on what you're looking for. And that tool is about how to do a safety plan and how to assess for safety. And that's usually the first thing that we want people to do is to talk, think and talk about safety. And you know, we say safety changes everything. So from our point of view, in getting information, learning about how to help a friend, looking at the safety plan are very easy and informative ways of getting aware. And then from there, there's opportunity to take action and that way if anybody wants to talk about how to take action, you know that you're welcome to call us and we can talk about that whether for themselves or for a friend or a family member. That's, and so our, you know, our line is available and now 24 hours for information and to talk through anything. You know, most of us know somebody that has, or maybe is, experiencing an abusive relationship and so that's, that's real. And so, the number and the website are places to get information. And then if somebody is concerned about themselves right now, this is, you know, an abusive relationship, this is another—website and the phone, is another ways to connect. And if someone's not able to call, the text option is available as well. And the idea is nobody has to be alone with this at all. And, and you're not alone. I mean, that's the main thing: we're a community of people that care and are taking action in a bunch of different ways. And that around violence and relationships is one of the really important ways that we need to connect with each other, both in helping people be safer but also to end it. I mean, the goal, it thrives in silence and in, you know, in silence and isolation, so we're shining a light on it, like, you know, like we are today. This is a good thing.
Am Johal 21:03
Angela, is there anything you'd like to add?
Angela Marie MacDougall 21:09
No, I'm just really encouraged, Am, by this opportunity and I know that you've got, you know, that your network is very engaged and progressive and committed to justice and taking action. So I'm honored to be here.
Am Johal 21:25
Yeah, thank you so much for joining us on Below the Radar, Angela.
Angela Marie MacDougall 21:28
Thank you, Am.
Paige Smith 21:32
Thanks again to Angela Marie McDougall for joining us on Below the Radar. Below the Radar is created by SFU's Vancity Office of Community Engagement and is recorded on the territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. Stay in the loop with Below the Radar by following us on Twitter and Facebook. Be sure to subscribe wherever you find your podcasts. Tune in next time for a brand new episode of Below the Radar.