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Family Violence and COVID-19

Family violence is a national emergency and even before the pandemic, our systems were failing Victim Survivors. Since government directed lockdowns took force in late March, we have recognised the greater risk this places on Victim Survivors who are required to self-isolate in unsafe homes along with perpetrators.

Unpacking family violence and disaster

Before we can delve into the impact this pandemic has had on family violence, we need to understand more broadly how family violence is impacted by disaster. While a global pandemic isn’t a natural disaster, we note that there are many similarities in the way a pandemic and disaster impact the wellbeing and safety of women, LQBTIQ people, First Nations people and other marginalised communities. 

Natural disasters have the greatest effect on the poorest and most vulnerable in our community and exacerbate poor health outcomes for those who experience multiple and compounding forms of disadvantage. We have also seen that when Australian communities experience natural disasters, rates of family violence rise.

At a time when the Australian public was being encouraged to self-isolate and stay home, we were already seeing other countries affected by COVID-19 reporting increased rates of violence against women. Reports show the Magistrates Courts had seen a 50 per cent increase in calls for the month of April; Victoria Police reports showed an increase in calls relating to family violence, receiving up to 200 calls per week; whereas family violence response services reported a decrease in calls as a result of Victim Survivors feeling unsafe to reach out for assistance. 

We also recognise that the rates of violence against people with a disability, members of the LGBTIQ community, First Nations people, and other marginalised communities is much higher. Existing evidence shows that:

  • The rates of family violence in the LGBTIQ community are equal to, if not higher than, those of non-LGBTIQ people. For example, in a 2018 Australian study of 1613 trans and gender diverse people 53.2 per cent reported experiencing sexual violence or coercion. This compares to 13.3 per cent among a general sample of people in Australia (The Kirby Institute, UNSW).
  • Over one-third of women with disabilities experience some form of intimate partner violence (Women with Disabilities Victoria).
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are 32 times more likely to be hospitalised due to family violence (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare).

We also acknowledge that these rates are further exacerbated by other intersectional factors, such as race, age, ability, socioeconomic status and/or location. Unfortunately, due to a serious lack of reporting we do not know statistically the impact this pandemic has had on these already vulnerable and oppressed communities.

COVID-19 imposes higher risks of family violence

According to the Monash Gender and Family Violence Prevention Centre’s recent report, Responding to the ‘Shadow Pandemic’, evidence shows that perpetrators were using the ‘restrictions and threat of COVID-19 infection, purposeful or otherwise, to restrict women’s movements, to gain access to women’s residences and to coerce women into residing with them if they usually reside separately.’

The report presents the findings from a survey of 166 Victorian practitioners who are working with Victim Survivors during the pandemic. Its findings confirm that for many ‘experiencing violence during the lockdown period, there was less ability to seek help.’ Other findings include:

  • 59 per cent of survey participants reported that COVID-19 has increased the frequency of family violence.
  • 50 per cent reported it has increased the severity of violence.
  • 42 per cent of participants reported an increase in ‘first-time family violence reporting.’

Speaking with one of our Family Violence Case Managers, Maeve, she stated that the pandemic has left ‘women [feeling] more vulnerable, especially those still living with the perpetrator. If the perpetrator has been let go from their job or is working from home as a result of COVID, then they are at home 24/7 with their partner. It is an abnormal situation to be in in any case, even when family violence is not involved and so, for a Victim Survivor the family violence will only escalate.’

How we are responding to family violence during COVID-19

Since late March, we have continued to deliver our services to those experiencing family violence in Melbourne’s west. Our priority is always the safety of our clients and we will continue to support them to work towards a life free from violence during these unprecedented times.

In response to workplace lockdowns, we had to change the way we delivered some of our services, utilising telephone and online platforms to carry on with client appointments. We asked Maeve how she had found working with the imposed restrictions and she said, ‘[it] can feel very strange as most of our job as Family Violence Outreach Case Managers involves face-to-face interaction and so it did take some getting used to. However, I feel as a team and an organisation, we adapted really well. Also, the women we work with who experience family violence have also adapted amazingly. It is a very different way of working but we are still able to do the same job, just in a different way. The pandemic has [also] forced us to learn how to respond in more creative ways… It has shown us that we can do case management remotely.’

If you or someone you know is experiencing family violence, please call 000 or safe steps on 1800 015 188. If you would like support, please contact us on 9689 9588.

For more information on the Gender and Disaster Pod visit www.genderanddisaster.com.au/.
To read more about the Monash Gender and Family Violence Prevention Centre’s Responding to the ‘Shadow Pandemic’ report visit www.monash.edu/arts/gender-and-family-violence/home