This article by AWAVA’s Program Manager Dr Merrindahl Andrew was originally published by With Her In Mind and can be viewed here. For more detail about the support AWAVA is requesting from the Federal Government read our post here.
As self-isolation becomes the norm, Dr Merrindahl Andrew, Program Manager for Australian Women Against Violence Alliance, highlights how this will leave may women and children in danger.
In a time where staying at home is the best way to limit the spread of COVID-19, we need to remember that for many women and children that will mean being self-isolated at home with their abuser.
Home should always be a safe place. Unfortunately, for people being subjected to violence and abuse by a partner or family member, it’s not.
All the evidence tells us that as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, more women and children will face increasing threats to their safety, as abusers’ use of violence escalates with increased isolation, stress and lack of community accountability – a pattern we know from natural disasters in Australia and worldwide.
People who choose to use violence against their partners and family members often have a pattern of abuse. This typically involves coercion, surveillance and cutting off their partner’s relationships with co-workers, friends and family. Isolation due to COVID-19 will intensify this kind of coercive control by abusers.
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As more people get sick and people need to isolate in their homes, more and more are going to be cut off from their usual avenues of support. Many women will lack the breathing space they need to make safety plans, and as the financial impact of the pandemic takes effect, access to the money needed to build a new life of safety may be even more limited.
That’s why it is vital that governments’ plans to respond to COVID-19 include urgent measures for women’s safety and resourcing of services.
From overseas reports and experience with other disasters, we expect abusers will use the COVID-19 pandemic as another opportunity to exert control – for example by limiting access to medical care or threatening to expose someone to the virus. Already, women with disabilities find that abusers threaten and withhold access to the equipment and services they need to function in a world that is often inaccessible. In the situation created by COVID-19, women with disabilities will be even more at risk of violence, and will need extra support. More generally, this health crisis will intensify pre-existing inequalities.
People already battling poverty, discrimination or insecure migration status will find their ability to seek safety further impeded by the COVID-19 crisis, especially where they already lack access to basic services and income.
Even before this crisis increases demand, we know that every day many women reaching out for help from services aren’t able to get it because of government funding decisions. We cannot allow this government neglect to continue, when the consequences of leaving women and children without support are even more life-threatening.
As with all other sectors of society, COVID-19 complicates the work of supporting women’s safety. And like all the services that work for the wellbeing and safety of our community, specialist family violence workers are using their expertise to find the best ways of providing support. In order to do this, they need additional resources.
As women become more physically isolated, their safety and support needs will increasingly have to be met remotely, by phone and online. Access to secure phones is vital – which is why the government must urgently fund WESNET’s Safe Connections program to continue providing safe phones and tech advice to women facing domestic and family violence and their front-line workers. More broadly women need the social security, health, reproductive, legal and migration services that they can use to build the lives they want without being controlled or threatened.
Key gaps need urgent attention. Increasing Centrelink payments is important and welcome, but this should include disability, youth and student payments. Women experiencing violence need access to Medicare, income support and other services regardless of migration status. Police need to prioritise protection orders and enable women and children to stay in the family home while removing perpetrators where it is safe to do so.
Women’s and children’s safety must be prioritised as an integral part of the pandemic response, and that means immediately increasing funding to specialist services and communicating to the public that everyone has the right to be safe in their home.
Across Australia we have specialists with decades of experience working in challenging circumstances to make it safe for women to be in their own homes. We stand ready to work with governments to make women safer now.
If you or another person is in immediate danger, please phone 000. For counselling about family or domestic violence or sexual assault contact 1800RESPECT online or by phoning 1800 737 732. For men who might be concerned about using violence, call the Men’s Referral Service on 1300 766 491.
Everyone who cares about this issue should be urging their governments to make sure people facing abuse in their home can access the service support they need to be safe, which you can do here.
Dr Merrindahl Andrew is the Program Manager for Australian Women Against Violence Alliance.