Since indications of a pandemic lockdown began, mainstream media have reported on the increased risk of domestic violence, running headlines such as “Triple threat: coronavirus, family violence and child sex abuse”, “The coronavirus lockdown has Australia’s domestic violence shelters fearing for migrant women”, and “Coronavirus lockdown results in 75 per cent increase in domestic violence Google searches”.
On March 26th, the World Health Organisation (WHO) released a statement warning governments and the public about an exacerbated risk of violence in the time of COVID-19. Already, one in three women worldwide have experienced physical or sexual violence by a partner. WHO and the media have identified many factors about why it may be worse: those suffering from domestic violence are stuck inside their homes with their abuser with less freedom and ability to seek help; their support networks have been cut off, there are fewer people present in the community who could bear witness, and people who are financially dependent on their abuser have no ability to leave if they’ve lost their jobs.
This is part of a broader, historical pattern that has seen rates of abuse increase during times of hardship. While statistics are hard to come by, oral histories from the Great Depression in Australia documented by Wendy Lowenstein describe these difficulties. Interviewee Miriam Tonkin describes her home life as, “my father was not only mean, he was violent. We lived in terror of him. Sometimes we were locked out because of his violence and we slept in the Park.” This is just one of many stories documented by Lowenstein, and countless other stories that have never been shared. Research into the 2007 recession in the United States also reveals a slight increase in domestic violence. By understanding the current crisis within this historical context, the repercussions of the COVID-19 lockdowns are frightening.
Given the incredible risk that people in already vulnerable situations are facing, governments, NGOs and community groups are attempting to help in new and innovative ways. Women’s shelters have been actively sharing and promoting their services, while calling for extra funding and donations. Hotel chain Accor has offered to shelter people fleeing domestic violence. The Victorian Government announced a $40 million package ‘for additional crisis accommodation and specialist family violence services’ during COVID-19. This is a necessary step, but it is unclear whether other states will follow suit.
On a personal level, maintaining connections is vital so that our physical distancing does not result in social distancing and isolation. Some individuals have posted Facebook statuses similar to the following: “If you’re isolating in a dangerous environment, message me about makeup and ask if I’m still selling it, I’ll know to keep checking up on you. Ask me specifically about my eyeliner and I will call the police for you.”
While the ectonomic and social impacts of COVID-19 have heightened the concerns and risks of domestic violence, it is crucial to remember that domestic violence is a persistent issue. Even prior to the crisis, our prevailing systems failed to eradicate abuse within the home. In 2015, the Australian Federal Government called domestic violence a ‘national emergency’, yet there have not been any substantial results. Therefore, it is important that the current increased media attention on domestic violence is maintained.
Around the world, responses to coronavirus have been successful when they are rapid and focused on education and mutual aid. Crucially, this is also the best way to approach domestic violence. Over the past month, there has been a spike in the googling of community-minded terms such as ‘mutual aid’. COVID-19 has provided us an opportunity to envisage a new world that could radically improve community support and resources for domestic violence survivors.
Given that there is no end in sight for current social distancing measures, it is imperative to continue the conversation about assistance for domestic violence survivors. We must look beyond creating awareness, and shift attention towards complete non-acceptance of any domestic violence and strengthening society’s belief and support of survivors.
If this article has raised concerns for you or someone you know, contact the National Domestic Violence hotline on 1800 Respect (1800 737 732), use their free 24 hour online chat service (https://www.1800respect.org.au/) or call Lifeline on 13 11 14.