Human rights Opinion

COVID-19 lockdown: A breeding ground for domestic abuse

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Domestic abuse helplines have received a concerning increase in calls since Australia's first COVID-19 case (Image via Pixabay)

Behind closed doors, the dark underbelly of domestic violence is thriving as more people are locked down at home, writes Anushka Britto.

WHILE SOME of us watched the exponential curve of COVID-19 cases and deaths rising around the world – including Australia – I was keenly aware of other curves also rising. I watched the unintentional adverse impact of keeping people at home.

Apart from increased suicides due to isolation and mental health issues and poor quality of life due to elective surgeries being put on hold, there were many more calls made to domestic abuse helplines.

In NSW there has been a 75 per cent increase in Google searches relating to domestic violence since the first COVID-19 case. While calls to helplines increased at first, calls to 1800 RESPECT in Victoria fell by 30 per cent. This was followed by an increase in domestic violence incidents, as victims were hesitant to use their phone.

However, this came as no surprise to the advocates and support workers who predicted an increase in domestic violence before the lockdown, in light of reports of domestic violence tripling in China in February 2020 during its isolation period.

The current COVID-19 situation has highlighted a number of deficiencies in the support we have for domestic abuse victims. This problem has been highlighted by Jess Hill in her award-winning and meticulously researched bookSee What You Made Me Do — a four-year investigation into power, control and domestic abuse in Australia.

As Hill has suggested, there needs to be a shift-change in the family law system, with mechanisms built into the day-to-day fabric of our lives which allow victims of domestic abuse to seek help. Hill also spoke of implementing strategies to provide assistance to perpetrators of abuse by making them question whether it is a need for power and control or shame that may be driving the abuse.

By providing a platform to perpetrators of abuse to take ownership of their behaviour, it encourages them to question what drives controlling behaviour and to understand the impact of their actions.

For victims with children, it is particularly difficult to leave an abusive relationship because of the lack of understanding within the judicial system of what domestic abuse is and consideration of children's witness statements.

I remember reading Evan Stark’s bookCoercive Control: Entrapment of Women in Personal Life, as a young sociology major ten years ago. I thought this has got to be it: now that we know how perpetrators use coercive control to subjugate their victims, surely this will put an end to the view that domestic abuse is only about physical violence.

But as Jess Hill has documented, it has taken years for the judicial system to begin to accept that in many instances, sexual, emotional and financial abuse precedes physical abuse.

Almost ten years later, it was found that on average in Australia, one woman a week is murdered by her current or former intimate partner.

Long before victims of domestic abuse are actually murdered, there are patterns of coercion such as gas-lighting, isolating the victim from family, financial abuse and the threat of violence. Strangulation is not only the biggest indicator of future homicide but is also one of the types of abuse that doesn’t leave a mark and therefore cannot be used as evidence of abuse by victims.

In Australia, the 'National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children 2010-2022'  is to be implemented over 12 years, with four three-yearly action plans. We are currently in the midst of the last action plan.

In parallel, several states have their own plans and strategies, which are separate to the National Plan, such as Tasmania's 'Safe, Homes Safe Families', Victoria's Ending Family Violence and  'Free from Violence', the 'NSW Sexual Assault Strategy', Queensland's 'Domestic and Family Violence Prevention Strategy' and so on. The initiatives supported by the National Plan include 1800RESPECT, Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (ANROWS), DV-Alert, Our Watch and White Ribbon.

What works for whom and in what contexts?

The 2018-2019 Auditor-General Report, 'Coordination and Targeting of Domestic Violence Funding and Actions'found that effectiveness in implementing the 12-year National Plan is ‘reduced by a lack of attention to implementation planning and performance measurement’.

It suggests there is scope to better target research activities towards projects that identify what works for whom and in what contexts. It also suggests that the department will need to develop better performance monitoring, evaluation and reporting, with different ways to measure success. Data sources to provide assurance that they are achieving the overarching target and desired outcomes will also need to be developed.

The Morrison Government has increased funding in domestic violence support – due to fears that abuse would increase with COVID-19 social distancing restrictions – by an initial $150 million. The funding is to help people experiencing domestic, family and sexual violence during the crisis.

However,  this money is going towards existing counselling support. For victims and their children trapped in a domestic abuse family situation during a lockdown, the opportunity to make a phone call or leave the house may never arise.

While support and counselling are provided to victims of domestic violence, there are no opportunities to assist them in leaving their situations and seeking help for the ongoing impact of that trauma.

Children who have been impacted developmentally by the trauma of their abuse are most vulnerable if they do not have a support system in place. It is important that signs of domestic abuse and adverse experiences, which leave children with trauma, are recognized early so that children can get the assistance they need. It leads us back to the question of what works for whom and in what contexts?

What tools are available to domestic abuse victims? 

What are the tools that victims of domestic violence can use safely while experiencing coercive control? There are a number of mechanisms used around the world that have successfully enabled victims of abuse to leave their perpetrators.

For example, Sonia Colvin – founder of Hairdressers with Hearts – developed an online training course with the help of domestic violence experts. It aimed at teaching hairdressers, barbers and beauty therapists techniques to provide support by giving resources to clients experiencing domestic abuse.

However, in a COVID-19 existence – where women may not be able to go to the hairdresser and find that safe space – there have to be other accessible places. For example, women may still need to go to the supermarket, the pharmacy, daycare or the petrol station. Perhaps there are other locations to place domestic violence pamphlets and resources, and train staff accordingly.

There is already a plan underway by Safe Steps in Victoria for supermarkets to provide secure spaces and phone access to call the police or other services, which would be overseen by trained supermarket staff. 

There is also an opportunity for businesses to show their support by making this a visible issue concerning society. Uber, for example, has pledged 50,000 free rides to shelters and safe spaces along with 45,000 free meals for survivors of domestic violence, across 16 countries.

There are certainly other avenues being explored to provide assistance on a long term basis – even after a victim has left their abuser – because the impact of the abuse doesn’t end there. Such trauma can have lifelong effects on domestic violence victims and their children, particularly around the development of emotional regulation and response to threats.

Different countries and states have used a wide range of innovative approaches to provide assistance. For example, The Pears Family School in London is an alternative provider for children and families dealing with emotional and behavioural difficulties. It makes a space in the domestic abuse support system available to victims of domestic violence.

What COVID-19 has shown us is, that the tools we have in place to support victims of domestic violence can be adversely impacted when access to phones and widely used channels of engaging with the community are cut off — as in a pandemic.

The pandemic has shown us that we need more resources embedded in easily accessible places, which may be different in each situation.

Anushka Britto is a day-time auditor, night-time philosopher, writer and creative spirit who lives in Melbourne.

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