Domestic violence is a contagious disease set to get worse

The rate of femicide is already high and the social isolation caused by the response to coronavirus is set to worsen it. Photo: Zebedee Parkes

Life under COVID-19 just got scarier for many women. Isolation at home is not the safest choice for women trapped in abusive relationships and family violence is the leading cause of homelessness for women in Australia.

As women lose contact with their outside home support networks, pressure is mounting for vital services, such as shelters and family support providers, to step in. But this is also difficult as face-to-face contact is limited or cancelled altogether for the safety of staff.

One woman is murdered by an intimate partner every week, with women being three times more likely than men to experience violence from a partner.  

There is already evidence that isolation measures are leading to a surge in domestic and family violence. A recent report by Women’s Safety New South Wales shows a disturbing trend where cases are becoming more complicated because of isolation and confinement measures.

Experts warn that when abusers feel powerless, they will seek more ways to control a partner.

Women’s Safety NSW CEO Hayley Foster told the ABC’s Drum: “We know [domestic violence] is characterised by coercive control: by isolating, monitoring, surveilling their partners”.

Across the world too, women are on the receiving end of violent encounters in this time of quarantine. Based on the number of reported cases: in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, there has been a rise of 50%; in China, the number nearly doubled during lockdown, with one police station in Jingzhou's Jianli County having three times the number of cases during February compared with the previous year; in Britain, calls to the national abuse hotline went up by 65% over March 28-29.

Budget cuts

Here, campaigners have been calling on state and federal governments to immediately act to protect vulnerable women. Domestic violence services and women’s refuges were already underfunded and at capacity before this coronavirus virus became an emergency.

After years of budget cuts, the federal government has raised funding for telehealth (for remote and regional communities), domestic violence support and mental health services.

The $150 million announced by the government on March 30 for domestic violence is inadequate to deal with the spike in need.

Despite being hard-to-quantify, some estimates have put the long-term social, health, psychological, financial and economic costs associated with violence against women and their children at $22 billion. Add another $4 billion for higher risk groups, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, pregnant woman, women with disabilities and homeless women.

Women’s safety advocates were incensed that in the lead up to this year’s International Women’s Day, the federal government re-announced its controversial no-interest loan scheme of up to $2000 for women fleeing abusive partners. Women’s Safety NSW chief executive officer Hayley Foster said it was ignoring the advice of experts as well as perpetrating a “victim blaming” mentality.

They argue the safety of women and children could already have been significantly improved if more time and money had been spent training counsellors, doctors, lawyers and family violence support workers.

Instead, women are being forced to rely on police officers, some of whom are domestic abusers, to identify women who are at immediate risk.

State governments have wasted no time deploying hundreds of police officers to issue fines to those perceived to be breaking quarantine rules.

The still-to-be-passed new wage subsidy plan, despite looking like relief for some, is likely to further disadvantage women, who make up the majority of casual and part-time workers. If they have not been employed for at least one year in their job, they will not be eligible to receive the special payment.

Despite often being qualified for more specialised roles, migrant women in particular are forced into lower-paid, casual work. Insecure work keeps many women financially dependent on their abusers.

Women on the frontline

As others have pointed out, the irony is the majority of those on the frontline of the COVID-19 pandemic are women. Women make up the majority of workers in public health care and education and they still undertake the lion’s share of domestic labour in the home.

It is mainly women who are being depended on for childcare as schools close, or as teachers where primary schools remain open.

Australia’s workforce is still highly segregated by gender: 70% of workers employed and managing our Health Care and Social Assistance industry are women. The education and training sectors are also highly feminised, with more than 62% being women.

In other essential services, such as supermarkets, it is largely women at the check-outs serving customers and putting themselves at risk.

The government aims to have 7500 ventilator-equipped intensive care unit beds. Highly experienced nurses, who will mostly be women, will be needed to monitor those breathing machines.

In a patriarchal society, it is still mainly women shouldering most of the unpaid labour in the home — housework and caregiving responsibilities to children and the elderly. This labour is intensifying under COVID-19 and women will be exploited more under isolation.

Gendered and family violence remains a national emergency with serious public health consequences. Domestic abuse will continue to spread during this pandemic and accelerate due to isolation and increased financial stress.

This virus is exposing the government’s disinterest and apathy in dealing with domestic violence, despite its stated position that “family violence is unacceptable and cannot be tolerated”.

None of this should detract from the real strength, kindness and ingenuity witnessed in networks forming across communities, including volunteering in essential work.

But we are still going to need federal and state policy changes and targeted funding to help women escape to safety during a pandemic that no one knows how long will last. Scientists have indicated that development of a vaccine for COVID-19 may take up to 18 months.

Sadly, attitudes towards gendered and family violence are slow to change and innoculation against domestic violence will take much longer.

[If you have experienced sexual assault, domestic or family violence call 1800 RESPECT on 1800 737 732.]

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