Australia’s second pandemic — gendered violence

July 15, 2021
International Women's Day rally 2019 in Brisbane. Photo: Alex Bainbridge

A second pandemic is lurking in the shadows of COVID-19 — the pandemic of femicide and violence against women. Globally, the COVID-19 pandemic is fuelling an upsurge of domestic and family violence, including coercive control and sexual violence.

Australia is no exception. However, the federal government is doing all it can to aggravate the problem by not only refusing to undertake basic reforms, but also not censuring alleged perpetrators within its own ranks, such as former Attorney General Christian Porter.

Barnaby Joyce’s recent return to the Nationals’ leadership and Deputy Prime Minister position, having resigned in 2018 after allegations of sexual harassment, is grist to the mill. Not everyone in the Coalition is happy, however, reflecting broader sentiment among women where support appears to be diving.

Misogyny and structural inequalities mean that First Nations’ women, women of colour, trans women and women with disability are disproportionately affected by the rise in violence during the pandemic.

In addition, the United Nations (UN) Population Fund reported that access to sexual and reproductive health information and services have been curtailed over this period.

Experts here and abroad warned at the onset of the pandemic that the conditions accompanying the pandemic — particularly social isolation, a lack of services and financial stress — would likely trigger a rise in gendered violence.

The New York Times reported last April that governments had failed to prepare for the forewarned increase in intimate partner violence. In Europe, it said, one country after another “seems to have followed the same grim path” which it said amounted to imposing lockdowns “without making sufficient provisions for domestic abuse victims”.

What follows then is a spike in distress calls, which then sets off a public outcry which then forces governments to “scramble to improvise solutions”.

This pattern has been repeated here. Despite the rise in gendered violence and demand for help, many shelters were closed in the lockdowns and victim/survivors were unable to call on friends or family for help due to restrictions on movement.

The UN reported that calls to domestic violence helplines doubled or tripled. Australia, too, recorded a major spike in internet searches for domestic violence services and support.

Last April UN chief António Guterres urged governments to “put women’s safety first” in their response to the pandemic. He recommended several key strategies, including: increasing funds to online services and civil society organisations; ensuring judicial systems prosecute abusers; setting up emergency warning systems in pharmacies and groceries; making shelters essential services; creating safe options for women to access support without alerting their abusers; avoiding releasing prisoners convicted of violence against women in any form; and scaling up public awareness campaigns, particularly those targeted at men and boys.

Most governments did not fully implement these and, in Australia, even small initiatives were too slow to be of much use.

For example, in March last year, a federal $150 million Domestic Violence Support Package was announced, but health workers said the roll-out was far too slow to be of much use. The Monash Gender and Family Violence Prevention Centre found that three months later the funds had “not yet materialised” and the Sydney Morning Herald reported by July half of the promised funds would only be distributed in another year.

As Women’s Safety NSW spokesperson Hayley Foster said, governments are failing to treat domestic violence “as the crisis that it is”. “A response that takes three, six or 12 months; that’s not good enough.”

Women remain under attack

Australian Bureau of Statistics figures, released on June 24, reveal that reported family and domestic violence-related sexual assault rose by 13% last year. This is only the tip of the iceberg: most domestic violence goes unreported for many reasons, including well-founded fear of contacting police, difficulties in contacting services and practitioners and abusers preventing survivors seeking help.

Research by the Australian Institute of Criminology, published in July last year, revealed a striking increase in family violence during the pandemic. One in 10 women reported domestic violence during the pandemic, and two-thirds of women said the violence began, or intensified, during the lockdowns.

Counting Dead Women Australia, a research initiative of Destroy the Joint reported that 56 women were killed due to violence against women last year. So far this year, 21 women have been killed.

A study by the Queensland University of Technology’s (QUT) Centre for Justice found the same pattern: service providers were reporting a significant rise in the number of people seeking help during the pandemic and restrictions on movement and travel were exacerbating violence in the home.

The Impact of COVID-19 Pandemic on Domestic and Family Violence Services and Clients: QUT Centre for Justice was undertaken in response to the rising rates of domestic and family violence as well as the UN’s call for governments to step up.

QUT’s findings were published last November, but did not receive much media attention. It took the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) to cite the report in late June in its call for workers to be given a minimum of 10 day’s paid Family Domestic Violence Leave for the study to be more widely reported on.

Disturbingly, the research found that perpetrators “weaponised” pandemic conditions to extend controlling and coercive behaviours, such as enforcing isolation, financial control, restricting access to children, increasing surveillance of their victims (both physical and digital) and increasing the use of technology to intimidate victims.

The study also said economic inequality was fundamental to gendered violence — and that this was exacerbated by the pandemic.

It quoted statements from service providers: “Victims/survivors can no longer afford to pay for rent. Or some are left homeless and there is already a demand on housing services … FV [family violence] victims are finding it hard to stay with perps [perpetrators] in isolation, and need temporary or long term housing. There are hundreds of people in hotels with nowhere to go.”

It said that the lack of emergency housing, along with financial insecurity, also made it far more difficult for victims/survivors to leave a violent relationship. There were also concerns about exposure to COVID-19 in emergency housing options.

The QUT study made recommendations for federal, state and territory governments to act, including: undertaking disaster management planning for domestic and family violence; providing funding for people experiencing domestic and family violence; and committing to social and affordable housing.

Is violence inevitable?

Is there a link between the surge in domestic abuse in homes and the Coalition government’s lack of respect toward not only women in the public, political arena but in its own party?

Researchers Kate Fitz-Gibbon and Marie Segrave from the Monash Gender and Family Violence Prevention Centre asked in a March opinion piece in The Guardian why so little had been done to address the social ill that one woman a week, on average, is being murdered.

“Is it that the Commonwealth government has accepted that violence against women is an inevitable part of Australia’s way of life?” they asked.

The Morrison government’s efforts to downplay former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins’ rape allegations and subsequent failure to provide her with support and the way it has closed ranks around Porter leads to that conclusion.

However, it amounts to more than just a dereliction of responsibility. The government has made it clear it is going to support alleged perpetrators stay in powerful positions.

Its cover is to set up more and more inquiries — as if the research on this topic is not already conclusive and the recommended actions clear.

While it did finally accept some of the recommendations of Sex Discrimination Commissioner’s Kate Jenkins’ report into sexual harassment in workplaces, tabled last year, it has not taken real action.

Yet another report, this time from the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs, was released on April 1.

The Inquiry into Family, Domestic and Sexual violence was not, unfortunately, about working on action to combat the crisis. Instead, it was tasked to “inquire into and report on family, domestic and sexual violence, including with a view to informing the next National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children”.

The findings were inadequate, with no timetable for action. It concluded, again, that “a more coordinated and comprehensive national approach” was needed to reduce “the unacceptable rates of family, domestic and sexual violence”.

It made 88 recommendations, many which have been made before, including developing: a “uniform national definition of family, domestic and sexual violence”; a universal age-appropriate respectful relationships and sexual consent education; and measures to address coercive control and technology-facilitated abuse.

Despite the public opprobrium, the lack of government action around Porter shows just how far it will go to protect the power (and income) of one of their own. A partially redacted dossier detailing the rape allegation against Porter was released on June 24. It contains graphic details of Porter’s violent rape of a young woman three times on January 10 in 1988.

Coercive control

Advocacy groups and some state governments are, however, acting on violence stemming from coercive control, said to be responsible for the murder of Preethi Reddy in 2019 and Hannah Clarke and her children last year.

Researchers have long known coercive control to be a major component of intimate partner violence, but this has only recently got recognition from broader sectors of society. The murders of Clarke and Reddy were the catalyst for this recognition in Australia.

Labor MP Anna Watson introduced the coercive control bill, dubbed “Preethi’s Law” to the NSW parliament last September in direct response to Reddy’s murder. A joint NSW Select Committee on Coercive Control was launched the following month.

South Australia criminalised coercive control last December. The Queensland government initiated a taskforce in February to investigate it. There is no formal inquiry in other states and territories however it is being debated in legal and family violence sectors.

A NSW government report, Coercive Control in Domestic Relationships, prepared for this inquiry, said that most domestic violence laws here and overseas are inadequate because they focus on individual incidents of physical violence, rather than sustained emotional abuse.

“Changing current legislation to include coercive and controlling behaviour would improve the safety of victim survivors by making it clear that coercive control is domestic abuse,” the report said.

However, domestic violence advocacy and legal groups warn that criminalising coercive control may rebound adversely on First Nations peoples, migrant and refugee women.

inTouch Multicultural Centre Against Family Violence spokesperson Michal Morris said: “Too often, we see the detrimental effects of over-policing and racial profiling on marginalised communities ... for coercive control legislation to be equitable and effective, there are significant structural and systemic issues that must be addressed.”

The NSW inquiry, which concluded on June 30, recommended that coercive control be made a crime. But it said a series of reforms needed to be put into place, including education programs, before the law comes into force.

The implementation of this law reform now, also comes on the back of similar laws being passed in Scotland and Britain. However, experts such as Megan Davis and Emma Buxton-Namisnyk question this approach of transplanting “an overseas model to Australian conditions without adequately consulting the one group it will acutely impact, First Nations women.”

Davis and Buxton-Namisnyk said that while coercive control must be addressed, such a law must not be used as an “announceable” — something that gives the impression of political leadership without carrying out structural reforms that would help survivors immediately.

It is cheaper and easier to punish individuals and not undertake the necessary structural reforms needed to combat institutional sexism.

Greens NSW spokesperson Abigail Boyd welcomed the outcome, saying it could help “save lives”. She acknowledged it is important to consult with First Nations peoples as many have an “understandable fear” that it will lead to “increasing rates of over-incarceration and of children being taken from their families”.

In a promising approach that says respect for women is important, Boyd said “whole-of-society reforms” were needed as a “wrap-around” to a new law on coercive control, starting now and “not stopping until there are zero domestic homicides in our state”.

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