Around Australia, police services, criminal defence law firms and family violence support lines are all reporting a ‘higher than usual ‘ number of calls relating to alleged domestic violence offences.
The threat of Coronavirus (COVID-19), and stern health warnings from authorities encouraging us all to practice ‘social distancing’ by staying at home means that those who are vulnerable to family violence are in situations where they are spending a great deal of time at home, away from their work colleagues and friends, as well as vital community services that could help them in times of need.
For many couples and families, the uncertain financial impact of coronavirus is compounding normal life pressures, with tensions in danger of escalating.
Workers in frontline Domestic Violence services say that when those in strained situations separate themselves by one of them going to work, or by working in separate places, the situation can be diffused and the chance of family violence occurring can be reduced.
So it would seem, the very technique that we’re using to protect people from the virus that’s reached epidemic proportions in some countries and certainly has Australian health authorities highly concerned, could severely adversely affect victims of domestic and family violence, not just by creating a spike in incidences, but by potentially exposing those already in abusive situations to more extreme violence that they cannot escape by going about their daily routines.
Dangers of escalation
Nine women have already been killed by violence in Australia this year, according to the Counting Dead Women project.
In 2019, the total number of deaths were 61, equating to more than one murder per week. But the issue of domestic and family violence is a global one.
Right now, in several countries, Domestic Violence services are reporting a similar and alarming increase in the number of victims reaching out to emergency services for help and advice.
The World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic earlier this month as a result of the far-reaching and swift spread of the virus. Currently about 150,000 people from 117 countries have the virus and the death rate is about 10% . As a result cities and territories around the world have gone into ‘lock down’ to mitigate the risk of further spread.
Also according to WHO, ‘one out of three women’ in the world experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, making it “the most widespread but among the least reported human rights abuses.” But during times of crisis—such as natural disasters, wars, and epidemics—the risk of gender-based-violence escalates.
According to reports, in China, the number of domestic violence cases reported to the local police tripled in February compared to the previous year which is believed to be a result of enforced lockdown.
For Australia, coronavirus comes on the back of devastating bushfires and floods. Thousands of people are feeling fragile about their own life circumstances right now.
Psychologists say that while we are all feeling a sense of ‘lack of control’ over some aspects of our lives, this creates a perfect environment for domestic and family violence to flourish, because this particular type of violence is rooted in both power and control.
Limited access to medical services
Of course, with medical facilities scrambling to respond to coronavirus, many local GPs and other health providers are already overloaded, essentially making it more difficult for domestic violence victims to access medical care. Not being able to see a doctor also shuts off an important avenue for victims to report their situation. Some victims will also refuse to seek medical attention at this time too, simply because they won’t go to hospital and risk being exposed to the virus.
Then of course, there is also the possibility already crowded emergency accommodation facilities may end up as incubators should anyone enter shelter with the virus.
Economic slowdown will affect support service funding
Many support services also rely on fundraising and donations and as the Australian economy slows down, it’s likely they, alongside all charities and non-profit organisations will suffer financially over the coming months. This will truncate the services they are able to provide at a time when demand has actually increased.
Those organisations which can afford to are looking at ways they can support victims remotely, by offering text and phone counselling, but with victims stuck at home, constantly surrounded by the abuser, it may be difficult for them to find the time and privacy to access these services.
What is the Federal Government’s response?
These unprecedented times for victims come as anger and disappointment rise over the Federal Government’s inaction on the important issue of domestic and family violence.
After the killing of Hannah Clarke and her three young children by Hannah’s ex-partner Rowan Baxter in February, women’s minister Marise Payne convened a special pre-COAG meeting of state and territory women’s safety ministers, where it was promised no ideas were “off the table”.
Despite the wide brief for the meeting nothing was achieved and no new ideas were discussed. For Australia, violence against women has been at epidemic levels for many years, it’s likely to be compounded now by the impact of Coronavirus and while the government invests heavily in heath and an economic stimulus package, still no more funding or initiatives have been announced to deal with the threats that many Australian women and children face daily.