As lockdown lingers, a rural reckoning with domestic violence

Why We Wrote This

Amid the pandemic, activists have been alert for increases in domestic violence, as abusers and their victims are forced into close quarters. The problem appears most acute in rural areas.

Tim Krochak/Reuters
A photograph of Kristen Beaton, who was expecting her second child and was killed along Plains Road during April's mass shooting, is seen at a makeshift memorial in Debert, Nova Scotia, April 23, 2020. The shooter had multiple accusations of domestic violence in his past.

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The coronavirus pandemic has catapulted the consequences of isolation and silence toward domestic violence, often compounded in rural contexts, to the fore across North America.

In Canada, the need to act now has been thrown into particularly sharp relief. That is due in part to the aftermath of April’s deadly shooting in Nova Scotia, which left 23 people dead. A former neighbor of the gunman in Portapique recently told the media he had a history of domestic abuse. But it is also due to the realization that the pandemic has locked victimized women and girls worldwide into homes with their abusers.

Many factors increase risks of violence against women; in Canada, indigenous and Black women experience higher rates of domestic violence, for example. So do rural residents. In tightknit, traditional places, where the nearest police station might be a half an hour away, and the closest women’s shelter even farther, escaping abusive relationships can be particularly difficult. Myrna Dawson, a professor at the University of Guelph, in Ontario, says that beliefs such as those dictating more rigid gender roles, and norms around the importance of guns, as well as on-the-ground realities including lack of public transportation, increase the associated risks.

Before he perpetrated the worst mass shooting in Canada’s history, the gunman had allegedly inflicted something lamentably more mundane: violence against his partner.

And if Nova Scotia was shocked by the 13-hour rampage through its rural hinterland that resulted in 23 deaths, including the gunman’s, in the middle of a global pandemic, it was less startled when a former neighbor of the gunman in Portapique told the media he had a history of domestic abuse.

That included one incident that she says she reported to police in 2013, in which he is alleged to have beaten and strangled his female partner before three male witnesses. It was not the first incident to be “whispered about” yet not confronted.

“I think sometimes in rural Nova Scotia, there is this culture of not speaking out, of minding your own business, not rocking the boat,” says Johannah Black, the bystander intervention program coordinator with the Antigonish Women’s Resource Centre, a women’s shelter serving two rural counties in Nova Scotia. “That is something that leads to isolation, to not having these discussions, to looking the other way.”

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But now Nova Scotia, where blue and green tartan scarves are still fluttering from front porches and mailboxes in grief over the aftermath of the April mass shooting, is being forced to look at domestic violence that has too often been dismissed, or unconsciously accepted. The reckoning comes as the pandemic has catapulted the consequences of isolation and silence toward domestic violence, often compounded in rural contexts, to the fore across North America.

“I think our society is forever changed, I think we all recognize that. COVID has highlighted the complexity of domestic violence,” says Gloria Terry, the CEO of the Texas Council on Family Violence in Austin.

It’s also prompted a scramble, she says, to innovate new services that might help reach rural women from Portapique to the Texas Panhandle long after the last restrictions are lifted. “Three months ago no one thought about doing telehealth approaches, or giving support to survivors through virtual platforming,” Ms. Terry says. “Out of sheer necessity we have equipped ourselves with new tools that can be effective.”

“In a room full of people, and they all turned away”

In Canada, the need to act now has been thrown into particularly sharp relief – both due to the aftermath of the Nova Scotia shooting and the realization that the pandemic has locked victimized women and girls worldwide into homes with their abusers.

For Janet Rhodes, that has meant moving her organization, Domestic Abuse Survivor Help, which connects survivors with mentors who have also experienced violence, online.

With the possibility of in-person meetings in her home province of Saskatchewan off the table, and with the scarcity of services in rural parts of Canada and the United States in mind, Ms. Rhodes is now looking at offering support via Zoom. “We can connect with more people that way,” she says. “So they’re getting that validation that this is not just them, that this is happening to other people.”

It’s a lifeline Ms. Rhodes herself could have used the first time her partner abused her. Early in their relationship in the early 1990s, when seemingly out of nowhere he threw a frying pan at her, she barely had the words to process it.

Later in their relationship, they moved into a small community of Dundurn, Saskatchewan, a tiny grid of streets alongside the highway, in the middle of the vast Canadian prairie. As violence escalated, Ms. Rhodes eventually turned to the only resource available: a list of crisis phone numbers at the front of the phone book.

But she called one only to have a person on the other end of the line tell her she should buy her husband some flowers. “That kept me there for quite a few more years, because I thought, ‘Okay, I’m not doing a good enough job as a wife.’”

Many factors increase risks of violence against women; in Canada, indigenous and Black women experience higher rates of domestic violence, for example. So do rural residents. In tight-knit, traditional places, where the nearest police station might be a half an hour away, and the closest women’s shelter even farther, escaping abusive relationships can be particularly difficult. Myrna Dawson, a professor at the University of Guelph, in Ontario, and director of the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability, says that beliefs such as those dictating more rigid gender roles and norms around the importance of guns, as well as on-the-ground realities including lack of public transportation, affordable housing, or support services, increase the associated risks.

Statistics Canada data shows rates of domestic violence are nearly twice as high in rural settings as in urban ones – and where women are more likely to be killed by an intimate partner, especially with a gun. A study in the U.S. showed similar results.

In Ms. Rhodes’s case, she didn’t seek help for years until the stakes were increasingly life-or-death. In 2010, when they moved to a bigger town with a police detachment down the street, she found an opportunity to load her infant son in his stroller and flee to the station. It was only after her husband’s arrest that she realized how many people already knew, or suspected, and had done nothing. “It felt like I was sitting in the middle of a room screaming my head off, in a room full of people, and they all turned away.”

Silence amid the pandemic

In the context of the pandemic, advocates are worried that they aren’t hearing from the most isolated women. In Texas, for example, Ms. Terry says that while many metropolitan domestic abuse hotlines have lit up, in some rural areas they have fallen silent.

Groups are mobilizing to reach victims who might feel that there is no help for them as some shelters have had to reduce capacity to adhere to social distancing. Heather Bellino, CEO of the Texas Advocacy Project (TAP), which provides free legal services for domestic abuse victims, says they are disseminating information about alternatives to help where they can, from urgent care centers to food banks.

“We’re working really hard to get the message to people in the rural communities that even if the number of beds is lowered, it doesn’t mean you should not reach out to your shelter, because many have now struck deals with hoteliers,” she says, “because we know the number of survivors or people that are being hurt has not decreased.”

In Nova Scotia, Ms. Black has focused on creating written resources to help bystanders intervene during the pandemic, with measures such as agreeing on a safe word that friends or family members can use over the phone to indicate if they’re in danger. “For me what’s hopeful is when I’m contacted by various survivors ... who are telling me that something like this would have made a difference for them in the past.”

But these measures alone won’t address the problem of domestic violence, she says, noting that deeper societal change is necessary. Ms. Black and others have called for a feminist inquiry into the massacre – set off after the gunman assaulted his long-term girlfriend and bound her up until she freed herself and ran into the woods. The case in Nova Scotia may be extreme, but it’s part of a culture and attitudes that normalized the gunman’s behaviors leading up to it, they say.

“These perpetrators represent the extreme end of a continuum of attitudes and beliefs held by the general public – particularly men – that facilitate and maintain violence against women and girls as normal and acceptable in some contexts,” Professor Dawson says.

“You can come and live with us, now”

Cary Ryan supports the feminist inquiry. As a survivor of intimate partner violence herself, she knows the fundamental role that society at large plays. She has been working with a research project with Nancy Ross, a professor in the School of Social Work at Dalhousie University in Halifax, on the effects of “pro-arrest” policies in Canada.

Under pro-arrest policies, police arrest suspected perpetrators of domestic violence, even if victims don’t want to proceed with charges. The intention of such an approach is to show zero tolerance for domestic violence.

But Professor Ross and Ms. Ryan’s work is showing that pro-arrest policies can have negative consequences for marginalized groups, including indigenous and non-white individuals, and can backfire in rural contexts. Research on similar policies in U.S. states has demonstrated comparable consequences. They say it is communities themselves that need to stop tolerating domestic violence.

A decade ago, Ms. Ryan was living in a rural part of British Columbia with a partner, who was also one of two police officers in town.

Ms. Ryan was socially isolated – they’d moved there for his job – and the relationship was abusive. When she finally decided she needed to leave, she reached out to the only person in town she knew. “They said, ‘You can come and live with us, now.’ These were complete strangers.”

The fact that the community rallied around her – and rejected her former partner – helped her heal. “I was able to hold my head high after all I’d been through in that small community.”

In Ms. Ryan’s case, the dynamics that can increase the risks of domestic violence in rural communities – the isolation and the smallness – may have saved her, as people came forward offering help and belonging. “I know that that wouldn’t have happened in an urban area,” she says. “People came and stood with me and believed me.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated to correct the photo caption.

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