A lockdown disaster: the struggle to help victims of domestic violence

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Changes are being made to help victims of domestic violence, as reports rise dramatically because of COVID-19. Sian Donazzon reports

“The impacts of [coronavirus] have been incredibly negative for many people … especially behind closed doors,” says domestic violence adviser Anna Wark.

Locked away in the privacy of their homes, domestic violence users are using the stay-at-home order as an opportunity to rule victim-survivors with an iron fist. 

As the lockdown continues, domestic violence numbers are climbing. The ABC reported an increase of 11 per cent in calls to 1800RESPECT and a 26 per cent increase in calls to Mensline. 

Ms Wark, a practice advisor at Domestic Violence Victoria (DVV), said perpetrators of domestic violence were taking advantage of the pandemic lockdowns as an opportunity to increase abuse.

Self-isolation was being used as a “tool to control victim-survivors” and getting help is even harder now than it was before, she said.

“It is really difficult [for victim-survivors] to find a safe time to contact a domestic violence service or … police for that type of support.”

Flinders University Professor of social work Sarah Wendt said women were experiencing domestic violence at a more intense level as they tried to survive the restrictions and plan their escape.

“COVID enabled an environment that could keep domestic and family violence much more hidden,” she told the ABC.

According to DVV, decreased access to services has led to abusers withholding essential items such as hand sanitiser, food and even their Medicare card. It has also given them an excuse to more closely monitor mobile phone use to increase their power and reduce the ability to seek help.

Victim-survivors were then forced to find unique ways to get the help they need, Ms Wark said.

Anna Wark

The usual avenues for seeking help are phone services such as 1800RESPECT, but the times of day people can reach out for help are limited in lockdown as victim-survivors are stuck inside with their abusers around the clock.

New ways to help

Ms Wark said victim-survivors had adjusted to these changes by “contacting [services] later at night … and using web chat and messaging rather than phone calls”.

“People are going to places that they still can, like the supermarket or pharmacy, to reach out for help there … there has also been a big increase in family and friends contacting services on behalf of victim-survivors.”

That’s not the only thing that’s changed. 

Domestic violence help services are rejigging their support systems to fit into lockdown conditions, just like the victim-survivors. 

“The workforce is operating differently,” Ms Wark said.

Shelters that offer refuge for victim-survivors have filled quickly. In some cases, they are unable to take new victims as they are required to adhere to the physical distancing measures in place, according to UN Women’s data.

In what is a world-wide problem, early in the lockdown the UN called for countries to make extra effort to help women in this situation.

In France, Germany, Italy, Norway and Spain, pharmacies and supermarkets became safe “go-to” spaces where the saying the words “MASK 19” signalled an urgent request for protection from domestic abusers, the UN reported. Pharmacies and supermarkets were chosen because they remained open even during strict lockdowns.

“[A pandemic is] never an excuse for violence and it is always a choice,” Ms Wark said.  

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, family or domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000. 

 If you are worried about your behaviour, call Mensline on 1300 789 978 or visit mensline.org.au.