Marina’s Picks: Immigrant Women Services Ottawa (IWSO)

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Marina’s Picks is a regular feature from CanadaHelps CEO, Marina Glogovac, highlighting some of the many charities she is personally passionate about. As a champion for smaller charities, Marina wants to help fellow Canadians discover some of the lesser known organizations that are working to make our communities better.

Content note: this post includes gender-based violence. 

Last year on International Women’s Day, I reflected on the impact that the pandemic has had on women, particularly in the workforce, resulting in the “she-cession”. With this week marking the second anniversary of the declaration of the global pandemic, I must note another devastating reality impacting women: gender-based violence. 

In November of last year, a UN Women Report, “Measuring the shadow pandemic: Violence against women during COVID-19”, showed that almost 1 in 2 women reported that they or a woman they know experienced a form of violence since the COVID-19 pandemic began, and 1 in 4 reported feeling less safe at home. With these startling statistics in mind, this month I wanted to speak to a charity that works on the front lines helping women in greatest need to learn more about the services they offer and what they have witnessed throughout the pandemic. 

Founded in 1988, Immigrant Women Services Ottawa (IWSO) has been providing critical services to immigrant and racialized women in Ottawa and the surrounding area for 34 years. Recognizing that the unique needs of this population were not being met, the IWSO was established to offer culturally sensitive services to reduce barriers to women seeking gender-based violence support. 

The organization has grown in leaps and bounds since then and  is now a multi-service agency providing three main program areas: Crisis Intervention and Counselling, which includes long and short-term counselling, safety planning, transitional housing support, support groups, a Children Who Witness Violence program and more. This service is available to any woman experiencing violence or who is at risk of experiencing violence, regardless of her immigration status. Settlement and Integration services which provide supports to integrate into the community; and Language Interpretation Services provided to service providers working with non-native speakers of English and French—they have a roster of over 170 professionally trained interpreters who speak over 70 languages and dialects.

IWSO’s Executive Director, Mercy Lawluvi

The IWSO’s Executive Director, Mercy Lawluvi, has been working with the organization for 16 years. Over the past two, she witnessed the broad impact of the pandemic on every service offered. “Gender-based violence cases increased by almost 45% at the onset of COVID-19 and especially during lockdowns,” says Lawluvi. “It was just horrific.” Luckily, the agency was able to secure more funding to increase capacity to meet the demand for services. IWSO also partnered with Unsafe at Home Ottawa, a secure online chat and text service for women living with violence during the pandemic. Through this partnership the service is now being offered in several languages.

IWSO saw increased instances of mental health issues and clients calling with high levels of anxiety, as well as increased instances of racism, poverty and food insecurity. “We were able to get food vouchers that we distributed to clients in need. Additionally, through a partnership, we were able to disburse some funds to non-status women in Ottawa as they didn’t qualify for any COVID-19 government financial assistance,” says Lawluvi. “We were trying to meet the needs as they emerged. We have been stretched, we have been overworked but we cannot let our clients down.”

Like most charities, the IWSO also struggled with the digital divide. “All of our services were transitioned to the virtual format and some of our clients either did not know how to use the computer or did not have connectivity. These are things that most of us take for granted but this is not the same for everybody,” explains Lawluvi. In response to this, they increased their digital literacy training and were able to acquire laptops to loan out to clients. “As we move towards hybrid service delivery, there’s going to be a need for investments in technology and digital literacy training for staff and clients—that doesn’t always come through with funding,” says Lawluvi. “Technology is advancing so fast and we need to have the resources to move along with it and to be able to provide services safely, securely and efficiently.”

What is unique about IWSO is that all of its services, programs, and activities are targeted to the unique needs of immigrant and racialized women, many of whom are survivors of violence and/or newcomers to Canada. The full range of services are offered all under one roof, in a safe and empowering environment. Lawluvi’s pride in the work IWSO does is evident, “The change we see in the lives of the women who walk through our doors after receiving our services is remarkable. That keeps me going every day and keeps staff motivated to go above and beyond their call of duty.”

When Lawluvi looks to the future she hopes charities have more opportunities to secure enough funding to adapt to the changing needs of their clients and their organizations—the pandemic has highlighted this need. “We are a grassroots organization, providing front line services to clients and we see their emerging needs as they happen. Charities need the flexibility to respond to changing needs in a timely manner,” says Lawluvi. “They need unrestricted funds in order to have the flexibility to adapt and respond as needs arise.” 

COVID-19 has greatly impacted everybody, especially women, and especially immigrant and racialized women who have been disproportionately affected. Lawluvi reminds us: “These women have a lot to offer and often just need a little support to get them off the ground. Let’s not forget that when women succeed, we all prosper. Immigrant and racialized women should not be left behind.”


Learn more about Immigrant Women Services Ottawa (IWSO) on their Charity Profile page.

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