Domestic violence services and refuges have been holding emergency meetings around the country as fears about the potential impacts of the coronavirus on women trapped in abusive relationships mount.
Following reports of domestic abuse as much as tripling in China during recent periods of isolation, advocacy groups have been urging state and federal governments to act swiftly to better protect vulnerable women.
Family and domestic violence support services:
- 1800 Respect National Helpline: 1800 737 732
- Women’s Crisis Line (NSW): 1800 811 811
- Safe Steps Crisis Line (Vic): 1800 015 188
- Men’s Referral Service: 1300 766 491
- Lifeline (24-hour Crisis Line): 131 114
- Relationships Australia: 1300 364 277
They are asking leaders to urgently fund emergency accommodation for women fleeing abuse, to provide resources for the increased burden on specialist support services, and to enable victims to be able to stay in their own homes.
“We want a national campaign providing information for victims of abuse,” said Hayley Foster, chief executive of Women’s Safety NSW, telling them “everyone has the right to safety in their own home”, and “there are services to support you.”
Experts have also warned friends and family to be on alert for signs of coercive controlling behaviour during the pandemic: in other countries abusers who won’t let partners leave the house have used the health emergency to control their partner’s movements and daily activities.
According to reports men have threatened to lock partners out of their homes so they get sick; some have withheld money or medication. One American woman reportedly called a hotline saying her partner did not believe in medical treatment and was forcing her to wash her hands until they were red raw.
If abusers feel powerless in the midst of forces they cannot control, experts say they will commonly seek further ways to control a partner.
Jon Owen, pastor and chief executive of Sydney’s Wayside Chapel said he had already noticed a “significant increase” in women accessing support for domestic violence in the past fortnight.
Domestic abuse survivor and advocate Nicole Lee has been watching the developments overseas with concern. “What’s happening in Italy is scary,” she said. “I can see how violent carers will use this to keep people stuck and controlled and in a state of fear.”
Frontline workers on high alert
Ms Foster said frontline workers were preparing for “escalating rates” of domestic violence but that many services were under pressure as a result of face-to-face contact being restricted or cancelled.
In NSW, the Department of Communities and Justice has told service providers it will cover the costs of temporary accommodation for clients who need to self-isolate.
But advocacy groups are asking for more funding, including for helplines like 1800 RESPECT, the Men’s Referral Service, Kids Helpline and Safety Net Australia.
And if courts shut down or the virus spreads to service agencies or crisis accommodation facilities, Ms Foster said, “all the wheels [could] fall off”.
Along with temporary accommodation, Women’s Safety NSW has asked the government to ensure additional police oversight of provisional domestic violence protection orders granted in the next few months.
They also want the police to consider provisional orders which would mean that instead of victims needing to flee to refuges, alleged perpetrators would instead have to leave the home and find temporary accommodation.
Research shows that violence against women increases during times of stress or anxiety, and experts say the next few months are likely to be particularly acute due to financial insecurity, alcohol consumption and health concerns.
“We know that for people affected by family violence, social distancing and self-isolation measures can pose increased risk,” said Diana Sayed, chief executive of the Australian Muslim Women’s Centre.
“Being forced to share space with perpetrators for extended periods of time only exacerbates already stressful living conditions,” Ms Sayed said.
Financial strain, job loss, food insecurity and mental health conditions, she added, could all inflame high-stress situations — particularly for migrant women on temporary visas.
In China, the hashtag #AntiDomesticViolenceDuringEpidemic has been used thousands of times on social media, and local women’s rights groups have raised concerns police have been using the pandemic as “an excuse” to not take domestic violence seriously.
Anita Bhatia, the Deputy Executive Director of the United Nations Women told TIME that while social isolation is an important protective measure, “we also recognise that it provides an opportunity for abusers to unleash more violence.”
What can victims do to stay safe?
Advocates are now urging victims to ensure they have access to alternative online supports, including Telstra safe phones, which allow those who are concerned their partner may be monitoring their communications to stay in touch with others and seek help if need be (the government has cut funding for this service from June 30 but for now it is still operational).
Nicole Lee said women should “try and stay connected to the outside world as much as possible, even if that’s through random Facebook groups” which she said can “help break down feelings of isolation”.
It is also possible to continue making safety plans during periods of isolation at home, she said, “such as identifying where in the house you can be that’s safer if tension isn’t rising”. Difficult situations might be defused, she added, “by going and sitting in the toilet or shower”.
“Identify at what point you think you will need to call the police for help,” Ms Lee said. “Set up a code word text message to a friend signalling ‘I need help’.”
Women with disabilities are at even greater risk because of their reliance on support workers, who may not be able to work as the pandemic spreads, Ms Lee said.
“This makes them particularly vulnerable and open to neglect and abuse if living in abuse carer situations,” she said. “Support workers that come into the home also help to keep an eye on toxic situations and call for help when needed.”
She added: “I know from my past being able to get out and go to the supermarket with the support worker was my weekly escape from the house and I could talk freely with her as well.
“These points in time are vital for disabled women experiencing violence, it keeps them from feeling isolated and gives them a window of opportunity to seek help if the violence has escalated to the point they need to escape. If the violent person and support workers are your only way to travel or make contact with the outside world, taking away the support is dangerous.”