While Australia’s domestic violence problem was horrific prior to COVID, the lockdown has merely added fuel to the flame.
Since the start of the pandemic, concerns have been raised that a combination of household isolation due to lockdowns as well as work and financial stress could lead to a wave of domestic violence offences not just in our state, but across the nation.
The United Nations has declared an increase in family and domestic violence during COVID-19 a “shadow pandemic” requiring urgent government action and well-funded services.
In July, a survey by the Australian Institute of Criminology revealed almost 10% of Australian women in a relationship had experienced domestic violence during the coronavirus crisis. As a result, there has been an increase in the number of people seeking out specialist family violence services throughout the pandemic, and despite the $150 million of extra funding for domestic violence support, the demand is far outpacing the supply.
Women’s Safety NSW surveyed 53 frontline specialists at 34 community services across NSW, finding rising rates of women experience domestic violence since the onset of the pandemic.
Forty-five per cent of respondents stated that their client numbers had continued to rise throughout the pandemic with 69% noting an escalation in abuse triggered by unemployment and financial pressures and 80% noting an increase in high risk cases with COVID-19 a key factor.
There has also been a dramatic spike in calls to national and state-wide domestic violence hotlines.
Crime Statistics Are Stable
As The Guardian noted, “Staff at Illawarra Women’s Health Centre are facing unprecedented demand for support from women in domestic violence situations. Referrals to the service from January to August increased 189% compared with the previous year, while phone calls spiked 55% in the same period, says the chief executive, Sally Stevenson.”
Stevenson pointed out that the waiting list to see a counsellor is around three months.
Family violence is notoriously underreported to police making official crime statistics an incomplete picture of incidents. We will have to wait for more in-depth victimisation surveys to be completed before we get an accurate picture of crime rates.
A more complete picture of domestic violence rates in NSW is scheduled to be released in December this year.
The Counting Dead Women project has recorded that 48 women in 2020 who have died as a result of violence in Australia this year. Police have linked 33 of the deaths to family and domestic violence.
The project also noted that “in at least 75 per cent of the cases reported from 2012 to 2019, the victim knew her alleged killer. We do not record only deaths attributed to domestic or family violence, as we believe all violent deaths targeted against women are the result of societal misogyny. We include women killed by other women (lateral violence). Their relatively small but equally sad number confirms that most violence against women is perpetrated by men.”
Risk of Violence May Vary
A recent paper by the Australian Institute of Criminology indicates a risk of domestic violence during the pandemic is likely to depend on a number of complex interacting factors.
The paper found that financial stress prior to the pandemic was a strong predictor of violence, as was a previous history of an abusive partner.
Two-thirds of women (67%) who had experienced violence prior to the pandemic by their partner experienced an increase in violence, compared to 3% of women whose partners had not previously been violent. There was a strong association between previous experiences with coercive control and the first onset of violence.
Social isolation was a key factor in violence. Women who reported having less than weekly contact with family and friends outside of their household during the pandemic were significantly more likely to experience violence than women who had contact with family and friends more than once a week.
Marginalised communities also experienced an increase in the risk of violence.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and women with long-term health conditions that impacted their everyday activities were more likely to experience violence.