One in every six Quebec women in a relationship has experienced some form of physical or verbal violence at the hands of her partner, a Université de Sherbrooke (UdeS) study suggests.
The study, carried out by UdeS medical students and community health interns Ariane Pelletier, Alycia Therrien et Marie-Aude Picard-Turcot under the direction of professor and public health physician Mélissa Généreux, involved a confidential survey filled out by more than 3,500 women across the province. Participants used an index known as HITS (Hit, Insult, Threaten, Scream) to evaluate the level of physical and verbal violence in their relationship.
The study determined that 17.6 per cent of women in the province were subjected to physical or verbal violence by an intimate partner. In the Estrie region, the number was about 15 per cent; among women from the English-speaking community provincewide, it was 25.6 per cent, and among immigrant women, it was 25.9 per cent.
Généreux and her colleagues have carried out a series of studies seeking to better understand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health, focusing on depression, anxiety and drug use. Taking a closer look at domestic violence was a logical next step, Généreux explained.
“For two years, we’ve been hearing about domestic violence, about feminicides, about women’s shelters that are overflowing, but the feminicides are the tip of the iceberg,” said Généreux. “Even if the abuse [described in the study] doesn’t involve criminal acts, it can be damaging to women’s health. Women in violent situations have a risk of suicidal ideation that is three times higher and a risk of depression that is two times higher than women who aren’t experiencing violence. We don’t want to wait until a situation becomes a criminal matter.”
She added that lockdowns and the social and economic upheaval of the early months of the pandemic put relationships under strain and made it more difficult for victims to seek help. “When the abuser is under stress or drinking more, that can increase [the prevalence of] violent behaviour, and it can also isolate the victim even more,” she said. “Imagine being stuck at home with your abuser and trying to call for help!”
Claudine Thibaudeau is a social worker and the training and clinical support manager at SOS Violence Conjugale, the provincewide domestic violence helpline. She says the study’s core finding – that one woman in six who is in a relationship is experiencing some form of violence – is unsurprising. Over the past year, she says SOS Violence Conjugale has received more than 58,000 calls, emails, texts and chat messages, compared to a pre-pandemic average of about 25,000.
“If more [victims] are contacting us, that means more people are talking about domestic violence and understanding what domestic violence is,” says Thibaudeau. “It’s not only giving your partner a black eye – it can be isolating them, denigrating them or putting pressure on them to have sex or share intimate images.”
Disagreements are part of all relationships, and the line between a difference of opinion and a psychologically abusive situation can be hard to distinguish. “In a healthy relationship, if someone says something you think is insulting, and you call them on it, they’ll apologize and it won’t happen again,” Thibaudeau says. “What is unhealthy is when they keep doing it, and use your reaction to undermine you.”
SOS Violence Conjugale has an interactive bilingual questionnaire and a microsite, itsnotviolent.com, aimed at helping people who aren’t sure whether a partner’s behaviour qualifies as violent understand when a relationship may be unhealthy. More than 120,000 people have filled out the questionnaire in the past year. “The fact that 120,000 people chose to fill out a form makes us realize that this is something that affects a lot of people,” Thibaudeau says.
If you are concerned that you or a loved one is experiencing intimate partner violence, call SOS Violence Conjugale at 1-800-363-9010 or visit sosviolenceconjugale.ca for text, email and online chat contact information. The hotline provides service in French and English, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.