What can we say? Times are…weird? Weird doesn’t even cover it. Our child care centres are closed, our offices are shuttered, our social enterprise (Women’s International Gift & Gallery) is closed and our stock sits unsold. And programming for kids and adults is in that transitional period as we search voraciously for ways to reach our participants and maintain some sort of space for them to be themselves.
It’s been a huge adjustment, and we worry for our participants and service users. We worry about the effects isolation is having on them, and we worry about the rising numbers of domestic violence around the globe and we’re afraid to think about how many of our participants and service users might be counted among those numbers. We’re doing what we can. We’ve been doing targeted calls to women we know that home is not a safe place for. We continue to connect with them regularly and remind them that we are here if they need anything, to review safety plans and to share resources. We wish we could do more.
There have been layoffs here at YWCA Cambridge. It was a difficult choice to make, but it was necessary given that more than 50% of our revenue abruptly stopped when we had to close our doors on March 16. With the announcement of the Federal wage subsidy, we were able to recall those employees as of April 13. We’re still going to be taking on great losses doing this. But, here’s the thing: we believe in decent work. As a feminist organization, it’s our responsibility to do everything in our power to support women. How long will this last? No one really knows, do they? We’re all making decisions with the next month, two months, three months in mind. It’s difficult to see much further.
But we’re doing our best. Those of us lucky enough to hold on to our jobs right now are all working from home, finding ways to all stay connected – to each other, to the families of our service-users, to our participants, to you.
For more than 10 years, the programming staff at YWCA Cambridge has provided support to cis and trans women and girls, non-binary and two-spirit youth in our community. Our participant-led approach has always allowed us to provide the most relevant support based on people’s ever-changing needs, as well as the ability to be responsive to shifts in political climate and crisis.
Today is no different in terms of meeting participants and service users where they’re at as best as we can. But how we can do that looks a whole lot different and even a lot more challenging to do when we’re all confined to our own homes.
We know that over 50% of the young participants in our programs have identified mental health issues and those issues are exacerbated in a crisis. Isolation is a trigger for many of the gals we work with. With the loss of school, their primary source of structure and socialization, children and youth are at risk of trauma resulting from isolation (the Atlantic covered this topic here). Our staff has worked quickly and with great care and thought to transfer our programs to an online space. This includes our pre-employment and life skills program, Small Steps To Success.
This is a particularly critical time that we reach our participants and families for a number of reasons. As has been explored by a number of writers, the COVID-19 pandemic affects women and girls disproportionately (The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives explores this excellently. Link here). We know that statistically, women are holding more front-line jobs right now – as grocery store cashiers, health care workers, personal support workers and child care staff. We also know that they likely go home from their jobs for the “second shift” of caring for children at home while schools are closed, or caring for sick family members. While pandemics are hard on all of us, women are still the ones bearing a significant chunk of that load right now.
For non-profits as a sector, the outlook is even bleaker. According to the Ontario Nonprofit Network, the nonprofit sector employs 1 million Ontarians, 80% of whom are women (link here). Nonprofits are facing massive revenue losses from program and event cancellations. This is not only devastating for each individual nonprofit; the sector as a whole contributes more than $50 billion to the province’s GDP. That’s a lot of jobs and a lot of money. And its women and girls who will be most impacted, women of colour, with disabilities and other historically marginalized identities the worst.
COVID-19 has filled our news outlets, our inboxes, our feeds, and our lives for the last few weeks. In this moment, we want to fill you with the idea that our community DOES have what we need to get through this, and that we will come out of it more connected and resilient than before. We don’t for a second want to undermine the extreme hardship and stress recent events are having particularly on women and girls. As businesses are ordered to close, and people are asked to cozy up at home and distance themselves, we are thinking of all the folks for whom home is the most unsafe space they could be in, the folks who don’t have a home to hunker down in, and those who can’t leave their homes and are running out of food and other basic necessities. We are especially thinking of those who are having to balance caring for children during the day while coping with all sorts of other stress.
Now more than ever, we need to reach women and girls in our community. We need to find new and creative ways to create safe spaces for them to interact with each other and share their experiences, their fears, their needs. We as a community cannot afford for these connections to be broken.
We join the calls of YWCA Canada, of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and of Women Deliver in demanding a gendered lens be applied to the policies our government enacts to support all of us during these unprecedented times. Because, just like so many other things, COVID-19 is a gendered crisis.
We’re in this together. We’ll come out of this together.