FEATURE: Australia has a problem with violence, specifically violence against women. As Victoria surges through its second COVID-19 lockdown the implications for those living in abuse is dire. Where can victims find safety when confined to their home and how has lockdown affected those living in family violence? April Shepherd with this investigation.
For many, it is considered Australia’s little secret, or our hidden shame.
For the women of Australia, it is all too common and all too known; violence against women in this country is rampant, crawling it’s way into homes nationwide. Statistics showing that one woman a week dies at the hands of their current or former partner and ten women a day are hospitalised.
These statistics come as no surprise to those who work with survivors of family and domestic violence (DFV) – those who are seeing every day the effects of COVID-19 and how it has exacerbated the issue immensely.
Stay at home orders began midway through March for most Australians and started to ease in June. For those in Victoria – after a brief few weeks of freedom, the city was plunged into a second lockdown as Coronavirus cases surged.
The situation seemingly getting worse everyday with the state now in the midst of a Stage 4 lockdown, the toughest restrictions Australia has ever seen.
The effects of one lockdown on DFV statistics are phenomenal, the full impact not even seen yet, but one fact is for certain – the second lockdown will be a breaking point for many.
Professor Cathy Humphreys worked in social work, mental health, domestic violence and children’s services for 16 years before she became a social work academic.
Today, she works at the Univesity of Melbourne as a Professor in social work and is a co-director of the Melbourne Alliance to End Violence Against Women and Their Children (MAEVe), which was established in 2015.
Alongside Professor Humphreys, Professor Kelsey Hegarty co-directs the Alliance – together they have two teams of researchers, one focusing on the daily responses to DFV, the other focused on health and early prevention.
These researchers have found themselves in a new era, where the research and statistics are still awaiting collation. It will take months, years, to see the full impact of COVID-19 on DFV, and how many first time offenders emerge.
The University of New South Wales (UNSW) is putting out a call out for workers in the DFV area in an effort to understand Australia’s responses to COVID-19, led by Chief investigator Dr Patricia Cullen.
“Ultimately, we want to help inform changes to policy and practice that will ensure equitable and better health outcomes for people impacted by DFV,” said Dr Cullen in a recent media statement.
Professor Humphreys has been collating research from women who have been surveyed by the MAEVe previously, and the results, alongside research from Monash University, tell the story of a shadow pandemic.
Monash University surveyed 166 practitioners on their experiences and thoughts concerning DFV during COVID-19, between the months of April and May 2020.
University of Melbourne Professor Cathy Humphreys is also co-director of the Melbourne Alliance to End Violence Against Women and Their Children (Image: Supplied)
This research showed that, “the pandemic has led to an increase in the frequency and severity of violence against women.”
The research also found that COVID-19 has given birth to new forms of intimate partner violence, such as controlling behaviour surrounding stay at home orders and ‘protection’ from the virus, to reports that perpetrators have been telling communities their partners have COVID-19 – to isolate them even further.
“For many women experiencing violence during this period there was a reduction in the ability to seek help, and the identification of numerous challenges to providing support,” said the Monash University report.
Professor Humphreys has already seen the short term aftermath from the pandemic and the isolation that Victorian women especially, are still facing.
“(These women) are more locked in than ever before, more isolated than ever before and having a much worse time,” said Professor Humphreys.
Professor Humphreys believes that some circumstances, that took a pandemic to see the light of day, may improve for those living in DFV – such as a higher rate of government financial assistance.
Professor Humphreys says, with Newstart as low as it once was, the payments, “keep women living with offenders because they can’t escape, they can’t live off Newstart”, and that the higher level of government assistance is one of the only positive side effects of the pandemic.
One of the most interesting patterns that Professor Humphreys has noticed in COVID-19 DFV statistics is still non-conclusive, with early indicators showing that post-separation violence, which women are more than twice as likely as men to experience, is not as prevalent as it usually is.
Professor Humphreys says this could be for multiple reasons – one of the most pivotal is Australia’s lockdown restrictions and the increasingly expensive fines for breaching the rules for a non-essential reason.
For those living in abusive homes, Professor Humphreys suggests that they use the resources available that are accessible online (for many stuck at home, making a phone call is even out of reach) such as telehealth and chat rooms – where help can be organised without the perpetrator knowing.
Safe Steps is a 24/7 support service for those experiencing DFV, with the vision of eliminating family violence, providing support and information.
Organisations such as Safe Steps can start a plan for those struggling to make the first step of escaping abuse, with Professor Humphreys reiterating: “contact the police if need be”, if in immediate danger.
Safe Steps functions in three main ways – responding (24/7 phone line and risk assessments), helping DFV survivors recover (trauma counselling and court support services) and preventing DFV (school and community education initiatives and advocating for policy reforms).
For those in Victoria, the site provides updated information on the current lockdown restrictions – and reiterates that even in Stage 4 lockdown, “you are allowed to leave your home to escape family violence.”
“If you need to leave your home because you are unsafe, the curfew will not apply to you, and if you need to travel further than 5km to be safe, you will not be fined,” states Safe Steps.
Safe Steps provides numerous suggestions for those experiencing DFV who want to make contact and seek help: running the shower to make a phone call, using Safe Steps online chat room, creating a plausible reason to leave the house and only calling if you are in a room with a clear exit that is without weapons.
Safe Steps also has other options and information for those suffering from DFV, such as (if planning to flee the home) make a plan, keep important documents nearby and leave whilst the perpetrator is out of the house.
Family and domestic violence is a complex issue that functions on isolation, intimidation and manipulation, all three of these intensified in COVID-19.
For those living in DFV, it is not as simple as leaving. Often the perpetrators have isolated their victims so much they feel as if they were to leave, they’d be completely alone, especially as lockdowns further restrict movement and contact with family and friends.
What if COVID-19 had existed for years, decades, centuries with the same death rate or hospitalisation rate as DFV, would there be uproar? The enemy would be eliminated at all costs. The only rational reason it has not been is the complexity of gendered violence and the unpalatable fact that it is easy to eliminate an enemy when it is a monster – a distant bad guy in the streets or a deadly virus. But what if it’s the men we know and trust? We can’t stop fighting because our enemy is hard to face.
If you or someone you know is suffering from family or domestic violence, contact Safe Steps on 1800 015 188 or 000 in an emergency.
1800Respect: https://www.1800respect.org.au/ or 1800 737 732
Domestic Violence Resource Center Victoria: https://www.dvrcv.org.au/
inTouch – Multicultural Centre Against Family Violence: https://intouch.org.au/