A life-saving lockdown could be life-threatening for many: protecting domestic violence survivors during COVID-19
Written by Adam McGlashan, Nardine Board Director
I will always remember being nine years old and waking up just moments before midnight to the commotion of piercing whispers, crying, and panic.
My family fostered children, so to have a child placed in our home wasn’t uncommon — but I knew this situation was different. I watched as my mother popped open the ‘emergency cot’ she kept in her wardrobe. I watched as she cradled a baby in her arms, one who’d been urgently removed from their home in the middle of the night. I watched as she bathed him, and I watched as she counted eighteen cigarette burns on his back. I watched as my mother cradled domestic violence in her arms.
I’ve watched the devastating impact family and domestic violence has on a child's development, whether this is their ability to form meaningful connections, or find their belonging in the world. Domestic violence in motion can take many forms, whether this is as a victim, a witness, or in my mother’s case, as a first responder. This abuse feeds an entrenched, generational cycle of disadvantage, one that is very difficult to break.
This is why domestic violence is one of the biggest problems that continues to plague the peoples of Australia, it is why I sought out the opportunity to sit on the Board of Directors for Nardine and it is why this work is extremely important to me. It is why sharing stories about this issue is one that will continue to happen until the midnight commotions of domestic violence are no longer.
In Australia, on average, one woman is murdered by her current or former partner every week and 1 in 4 women will have experienced emotional abuse by a current or former partner from the age of 15 (White Ribbon Australia, 2020). These statistics are terrifying and are set to get terrifyingly worse with the escalation of COVID-19, as survivors become locked in a makeshift prison with their abusers.
Domestic violence is a deep-rooted problem, one that is complex and has many compounding factors, none of which can be solved easily. It is a beast that is running rampant in our country, one article cannot be the answer to this problem, but what I hope, is that it can provide information regarding the immediate relief available for anyone experiencing domestic violence in this unprecedented time. I hope that this article encourages all of us as a community to not just be moved, but to move. I hope that we become active participants in changing the narrative of this story, to check in on each other, to ensure that everyone remains seen, even if it’s from behind the closed doors of a COVID-19 lock down, to help keep everyone safe.
It is during times of global crisis and isolation that we must rely on the goodness of humanity, because if we have learnt anything from watching the songs that have spilled from Italian balconies and the claps that have echoed down the streets of London, it is that communion really does move beyond the walls we find ourselves sitting behind.
A global epidemic with a pandemic on top
Domestic violence is a deadly epidemic in motion. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) it is considered the most widespread, yet least reported human rights abuse across the globe (The Guardian, 2020). As the world finds itself in a lockdown to stop the spread of COVID-19 in a mass effort to save lives, victim-survivors and their children face a double threat: a deadly virus outside and an abuser inside. A double-edge sword that we must be equipped to defend.
In the Hubei province of China, where COVID-19 originated, police domestic violence reports more than tripled during the February lockdown. In Italy the country saw the first domestic violence fatality five days after the lockdown began, when a woman was murdered by her husband in front of their children (The Guardian, 2020).
In Tunisia, in the first five days after people were ordered to stay indoors, calls to the domestic violence hotline increased fivefold. In Brazil, where the federal government hadn’t issued stay-in orders, a state-run drop-in center saw a 40% – 50% increase in demand (The Washington Post, 2020).
The sad thing is, these alarming figures only tell us of cases where women are able to seek help – many can’t call out of fear of being overheard by abusive partners or stopped from leaving the home. In Italy, first responders have reported that calls from victim-survivors have dropped sharply, and are instead receiving desperate text messages and emails (The Guardian, 2020). Alarmingly, with schools shutting down, this also means a reduction of watchful eyes who are able to make child welfare reports, to keep families safe.
The threat intensifies as COVID-19 has become weaponised against survivors as abusers are using it to further control and isolate them. Therefore, countries must move quickly to ensure survivors are protected.
In France, since the country went into lockdown in mid-March, we are seeing the relocation of survivors into hotels, while an "alert system" in pharmacies nationwide has also been set up, allowing survivors to discreetly ask the pharmacist to call police by asking for “mask19.” Further measures include 20 support centres at grocery stores around the country where women could seek help (Vice, 2020). As Australians we must ask ourselves, should we not be setting up the same systems?
Australia is moving quickly to protect the nation
Whilst Australia is yet to go into forced lockdown, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced there has been a 75% surge in Google searches for domestic violence help during the ongoing nationwide shutdown of non-essential services – the highest in the past 5 years (Women's Council for Domestic and Family Violence Services, 2020).
In response, an initial $150 million is being provided to support any and all Australian’s who are experiencing domestic, family and sexual violence due to the fallout from COVID-19 (Women's Council for Domestic and Family Violence Services, 2020). The response of this Australian Government is a swift acknowledgment of the double-edged sword that threatens the lives of so many Australians.
This funding will boost programs under the National Plan to reduce Violence against Women and their Children, including:
Counselling support for families affected by, or at risk of experiencing, domestic and family violence. This includes programs focusing on changing men’s behaviour and will provide a short, medium and longer-term response to support men;
1800RESPECT, the national domestic, family and sexual violence counselling service, which is already answering 160,000 calls a year;
Mensline Australia, the national counselling service for men is providing support for emotional health and relationship concerns for men affected by, or considering using violence;
Trafficked People Program to support particularly vulnerable cohorts such as victims of human trafficking, forced marriage, slavery and slavery-like practices;
These are support programs for anyone experiencing violence to protect themselves to stay in their homes, or a home of their choice, when it is safe to do so.
During isolation, we need connection now more than ever
This global crisis has brought with it many losses. Whether this be the loss of physical connection, the loss of routine, the loss of work, the loss of gathering for meals, the loss of collective worship. As a species we find ourselves at a loss, a global grieving is taking place, and we find ourselves mourning for ‘what was.’ We find ourselves on the brink of great change, and while we have lost much, we must take this as an opportunity to find our humanity once again. Let us fill the void of our loss with empathy, with love, with compassion. Let this loss become the rock bottom on which we can rebuild.
If you’re experiencing any form of domestic abuse, if you feel as though your safety has been lost, please don’t minimise your suffering. We all need to feel safe during these times. As vulnerability expert Brene Brown says “hurt is hurt, and every time we honour our own struggle and the struggles of others by responding with empathy, the healing that results affects all of us.”
Let our response to the losses we are facing be one of empathy. Let our response be virtually checking in on the people in our lives. Let our response be sharing these resources with anyone who might need them. It’s crucial we keep the metaphorical doors open, even if those doors have been closed on us in the past. Compassion fatigue is at an all-time high right now, and in a world filled with losses, empathy is something we cannot afford to lose. We must all become active participants in keeping one another safe.
Humanity finds itself at the precipice of great change; a pandemic has been at work in the background of our nation long before COVID-19 reached Australia’s shores. We are the first responders to a war on two fronts and as a collective we must turn up; we must be better and do better. The terror and trauma of generational domestic violence cannot be undone and unseen, nor can the midnight commotion of piercing whispers, crying, and panic be unheard. We cannot change the past, but we can decide that this will no longer be the narrative of our nation. Our story must be one of immediate change; one about love, about life-saving empathy, about becoming the greatest version of humanity during a truly unprecedented time.
The services described above are all readily available should you or someone you know need support. Nardine too is always here to help. We offer crisis accommodation, therapeutic services and advocacy in legal, housing and welfare matters, to our current clients. We believe it’s everyone’s fundamental right to feel safe, and work to empower survivors to build courage from vulnerability. You can reach us, by clicking the 'Contact Us' tab in the main menu above.
White Ribbon Australia
Please call 000 if you are in danger now or call 1800 737 732
Please call 1300 78 99 78 to talk with a counsellor anywhere, anytime
Trafficked People Program
The Guardian, 2020, Lockdowns around the world bring rise in domestic violence, https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/mar/28/lockdowns-world-rise-domestic-violence
The Washington Post, 2020, Measures to control the spread of coronavirus are a nightmare for victims of domestic violence. Advocates are demanding governments step up, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2020/04/01/measures-control-spread-coronavirus-are-nightmare-victims-domestic-violence-advocates-are-demanding-that-governments-step-up/
Vice, 2020, France Is Putting Domestic Abuse Victims in Hotels During Coronavirus Lockdown, https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/y3mj4g/france-is-putting-domestic-abuse-victims-in-hotels-during-coronavirus-lockdown
White Ribbon Australia, 2019, Domestic Violence Statistics, https://www.whiteribbon.org.au/understand-domestic-violence/facts-violence-women/domestic-violence-statistics/?gclid=Cj0KCQjw3PLnBRCpARIsAKaUbgswtBtE2MH_1uTIDXAL-gsBNTNZaLD4qbf1bG8zN__uEyyFkIVeGVgaAhwwEALw_wcB
Women's Council for Domestic and Family Violence Services, 2020, Domestic Violence Support
Image courtesy of Ronan Furuta, Unsplash