Opinion: the dark underbelly of domestic abuse in Australia

By Anushka Britto

July 9, 2020


While some of us watched the exponential curve of COVID-19 cases and deaths rising around the world and in Australia, I was keenly aware of other curves also rising.

I watched the unintentional adverse impact of keeping people at home. Apart from increased suicides due to isolation and mental health issues, poor quality of life due to elective surgeries being put on hold, there were many more calls made to domestic abuse helplines. In NSW there has been a 75% increase in google searches relating to domestic violence since the first COVID-19 case. While calls to helplines increased at first, calls to 1800 RESPECT in Victoria fell by 30%, followed by an increase in domestic violence incidents as victims were hesitant to use their phone. However this came as no surprise to the advocates and support workers who predicted an increase in domestic violence before the lockdown, in light of reports of domestic violence tripling in China in February 2020 during its isolation period.

The current COVID-19 situation has highlighted a number of deficiencies in the support we have for domestic abuse victims. This problem has been highlighted by Jess Hill in her award winning and meticulously researched book ‘See What You Made Me Do’, a four year investigation into power, control and domestic abuse in Australia. As Hill has suggested, there needs to be a shift-change in the family law system, with mechanisms built into the day to day fabric of our lives, allowing victims of domestic abuse to seek help. She also spoke of implementing strategies to provide assistance to the perpetrators of abuse by making them question whether it is a need for power and control or shame that may be driving their abuse. By providing a platform to the perpetrators of abuse to take ownership of their behaviour, it encourages them to question what drives controlling behaviour and understand the impact of their actions. For victims with children, it is particularly difficult to leave an abusive relationship because of the lack of understanding within the judicial system of what domestic abuse is and consideration of children’s witness statements.

I remember reading Evan Stark’s ‘Coercive Control’, as a young Sociology major 10 years ago and thinking, this has got to be it – now that we know how perpetrators use coercive control to subjugate their victims, surely this will put an end to the view that domestic abuse is only physical violence. But as Jess Hill has documented, it has taken years for the judicial system to start to accept that in many instances, sexual, emotional and financial abuse precedes physical abuse. Almost 10 years later, it was found that on average in Australia, one woman a week is murdered by her current or former intimate partner. Long before victims of domestic abuse are actually murdered, there are patterns of coercion such as gas-lighting, isolating the victim from their family, financial abuse and the threat of violence. Strangulation is not only the biggest indicator of future homicide but it is also one of the types of abuse that doesn’t leave a mark and therefore cannot be used as evidence of abuse by victims.

In Australia, the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children 2010-2022 is to be implemented over 12 years, with four three-yearly action plans. We are currently in the midst of the last action plan. In parallel, several states have their own plans and strategies that are separate to the National Plan such as Safe, Homes Safe Families, Ending Family Violence, Free from Violence, NSW Sexual Assault Strategy, Domestic and Family Violence Prevention Strategy, etc. The initiatives supported by the National Plan include 1800RESPECT, Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (ANROWS), DV-Alert, Out Watch and White Ribbon.

The 2018-2019 Auditor General Report about the Coordination and Targeting of Domestic Violence Funding and Actions conducted by the Australian National Audit Office found that the effectiveness in implementing the 12 year National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children 2010-2022 is ‘reduced by a lack of attention to implementation planning and performance measurement’. It suggests that there is scope to better target research activities towards projects that identify what works for whom and in what contexts. It also suggests that the department will need to develop better performance monitoring and evaluation and reporting, with different ways to measure success and data sources, to provide assurance that they are achieving the overarching target and desired outcomes.

The government has increased funding in domestic violence support due to the fears that it would increase with COVID-19 social distancing restrictions, with an initial $150 million to help people experiencing domestic, family and sexual violence during the crises. However, the money is going towards existing counselling support. For victims and their children trapped in a domestic abuse family situation in a lockdown, the opportunity to make a phone call or leave the house may never arise. Whilst support and counselling is provided to victims of domestic violence, there are no opportunities to assist them in leaving their situations and seek help for the ongoing impact of that trauma. It is evident that children who have been impacted developmentally by the trauma of their abuse are most vulnerable and do not have a support system in place. It is important that signs of domestic abuse and adverse experiences that leave children with trauma are recognized early so that children can get the assistance they need.  It leads us back to the question of what works for whom and in what contexts?

What are the tools that victims of DV can use safely whilst experiencing coercive control? There are a number of mechanisms used around the world that have successfully enabled victims of abuse to leave their perpetrators. For example, Sonia Colvin, founder of Hairdressers for Hearts, developed an online training course with the help of domestic violence experts, aimed at teaching hairdressers, barbers and beauty therapists techniques to provide support to clients experiencing domestic abuse by giving them resources for help. However, in a COVID-19 existence, where women may not be able to go to the hairdressers and find that safe space, there have to be other places that are still accessible. For example, women may still need to go to the supermarket, the pharmacy, day care or the petrol station. Perhaps there are several other locations to place domestic violence pamphlets and resources and train staff accordingly. There is already a plan underway by Safe Steps in Victoria for supermarkets, to provide secure spaces and phone access to call police or other services which would be provided by trained supermarket staff.  There is also an opportunity for businesses to show their support and make this a visible issue concerning society. Uber for example, has pledged 50000 free rides to shelters and safe spaces along with 45000 free meals for survivors of domestic violence across 16 countries.

There are certainly several other avenues being explored to provide assistance on a long term basis. Even after a victim has left their abuser — because the impact of the abuse doesn’t end there. The trauma can have lifelong effects on the victims and their children, particularly for the development of emotional regulation and response to threat. Different countries and states have used a wide range of innovative approaches to provide assistance. For example, The Pears Family School in London is an alternative provider for children and their families with emotional and behavioural difficulties. It provides a gap in the domestic abuse support system, available to victims of domestic violence.

What the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us is that the tools in place to support victims of domestic violence can be adversely impacted when their access to phones and widely used channels of engaging with the community are cut off, as in this pandemic. It has shown us that we need more resources embedded in easily accessible places, which may be different in each situation.

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