Intimate partner violence is a major public health concern. According to Statistics Canada, in 2018, 44 per cent of women experienced some form of intimate partner violence in their lifetime. Rates of intimate partner violence are not only alarmingly high, but steadily increasing. In 2022, there were 117,093 victims of police-reported intimate partner violence in Canada. This marked a 19 per cent increase since 2014.
Violence in intimate relationships can take many forms, including physical, sexual, emotional or financial abuse and coercive control. And intimate partner violence increases during emergencies such as pandemics, natural disasters and even economic downturns.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, federal consultations with provinces and territories found that intimate partner violence rose by 20 to 30 per cent in certain regions of Canada. Rising rates of intimate partner violence worldwide at this time were labelled as “the shadow pandemic” by the United Nations.
These increases in intimate partner violence have highlighted the need for creative and innovative ways of addressing the issue, particularly during emergencies. As part of our research on intimate partner violence during the COVID-19 pandemic in Manitoba, we examined how technology is creatively being used to help survivors of intimate partner violence.
Technology and intimate partner violence
Discussions about intimate partner violence and technology often focus on the ways abusers misuse technology to harm their intimate partners. This type of violence, known as technology-facilitated violence, includes sending abusive or threatening text messages, monitoring an intimate partner through tracking systems or spyware and controlling an intimate partner’s access to technology.
Technology can pose undeniable harms to survivors of intimate partner violence. However, it is also being used to help survivors by connecting them with resources, services and supports. We specifically saw technology be used in creative ways during the COVID-19 pandemic in place of in-person services.
Participants in our research project noted an increase in online services for survivors of intimate partner violence, including online counselling, safety planning, support groups and text or chat-based crisis lines. The easy access these services provide reduced certain barriers that came with in-person services such as transportation or having to find child care.
Other technology-based initiatives have gained recognition, such as online awareness campaigns. The award-winning Signal for Help campaign was launched in April 2020 in a response to increases in both gender-based violence and the use of video calls during the pandemic. The campaign featured a one-handed gesture that survivors of violence could use on video calls to signal that they need help.
Several apps have also been developed to help keep survivors safe. The myPlan Safety App features assessments and strategies for safety planning, online privacy and finding resources in a user’s local area.
Researchers have been exploring the potential of using artificial intelligence to help doctors care for and support survivors of intimate partner violence.
Large-scale partnerships with technology companies during the pandemic showed increasing potential for reaching survivors of intimate partner violence at home. UN Women partnered with tech companies in the United States to distribute information about services and resources for intimate partner violence survivors. The National Network to End Domestic Violence and Snapchat also announced a partnership to provide intimate partner violence resources for users through searches of related terms.
Barriers to online services
The use of technology does not come without challenges. For instance, some of our research participants told us it was difficult to navigate online services. This was particularly apparent for those who had limited experience with technology. Others also noted that it could be hard to find privacy to access online services at home.
Additionally, some participants did not have access to the internet or technology needed to access online services, like a laptop or smartphone. This was common among those living in rural, remote or northern areas of Canada. Those who did have access to internet and technology in these areas noted that their internet connection or cellular service was often unreliable.
As technology in the area advances, it is important to identify and address social, economic and geographical barriers that can prevent survivors of intimate partner violence from utilizing online services. This is particularly important for survivors with limited online access, such as low-income, older adults or those living in rural areas.
Despite these challenges, the use of technology shows great potential for helping survivors of intimate partner violence, both during and after emergencies. Online service provision was noted as particularly beneficial for younger generations, who experience especially high rates of violence. Continuing to invest in creative and innovative ways of meeting the complex needs of survivors provides promising practices for addressing intimate partner violence now, and into the future.