Domestic violence in the time of coronavirus

Heightened stress and uncertainty in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic could place women at increased risk of domestic violence, experts warn, especially when they are forced to self-isolate with their perpetrator at home.

Mar 20, 2020, updated Mar 20, 2020
Photo: Jacob King/PA

Photo: Jacob King/PA

“Imagine being stuck in a place with someone who puts you through hell every single day and you’re told to stay home and not have contact with anyone else,” says anti-domestic violence campaigner and Zahra Foundation co-founder Arman Abrahimzadeh.

“You can still pick up a phone and call someone, but even then do you think that you would feel safe if you’re at home and calling 1800RESPECT when you know that the perpetrator is in the next room or somewhere else in the house?

“The best you can do is, if there’s a separate garage or something, you can go there and maybe go and sit in the car while you make the phone call, but even then, what happens if the perpetrator finds you in that moment calling a frontline service in the car?

“Obviously the perpetrator is going to hark up and the final resolve might be that you are then physically assaulted.”

According to White Ribbon Australia, across the country one woman is murdered by her current or former partner on average each week.

But it’s not just physical violence that places women at risk, with some perpetrators also using psychological and emotional abuse tactics to alienate their partners from their family and friends.

Self isolation adds another layer as women and their children can be cut off from their support networks and are without any respite from the abuse

Experts are now warning that calls to self-isolate to combat the spread of the coronavirus disease could have unintended consequences on women whose risk of experiencing domestic violence while distanced from their support network is exacerbated.

“If they’re stuck at home with someone who’s either emotionally abusive, psychologically or physically abusive, well chances are they’re not going to be safe,” says Abrahimzadeh, whose family has experienced domestic violence first-hand.

“Who knows what the impact of coronavirus will be on those families because for all we know we might see a spike in not just DV incidents, but also the DV rate of murders and serious assaults.”

The increasing number of confirmed coronavirus cases in South Australia yesterday prompted the Women’s Safety Services SA – the state’s peak frontline domestic violence service – to issue a statement warning about the potential risk of increased violence and psychological abuse in the family home.

A downturn in the economy, job losses and casual and contract worker uncertainty have added to the sense of fear in the community, which is in turn expected to boost tension in some family homes.

“During times of heightened stress, anxiety and/or financial hardship we see the rate of domestic violence increase,” a Women’s Safety Services SA spokesperson told InDaily.

“Self-isolation adds another layer as women and their children can be cut off from their support networks and are without any respite from the abuse.”

For Flinders University social work Professor Sarah Wendt, the coronavirus pandemic has created “extraordinary circumstances” that exacerbate – not cause – domestic violence in the family home.

“Domestic violence is often always present, so natural disasters such as coronavirus will exacerbate it or could potentially make it worse,” she says.

“Often women are already isolated from families and friends because of domestic violence and so coronavirus is going to exacerbate that.”

Wendt says South Australia’s family and domestic violence front-line services are continuing to operate amid the coronavirus crisis, with online assistance and telephone crisis support “particularly important” to keep running.

At the end of the day if they feel really unsafe I would highly encourage police intervention

Women’s Safety Services SA is continuing to provide risk assessments, safety management, telephone services and access to safe accommodation for those who need it, but it has temporarily halted non-essential services like training, and is reducing face-to-face contact with clients “except where it is essential”.

“I would encourage women to think about ways they feel safe accessing the 1800 RESPECT or online services and to trust themselves with it,” Wendt says, when asked to provide advice to women who are forced into self-isolation and who experience domestic violence.

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“Women are really good at understanding, placating the perpetrator and how to keep themselves safe, and so I want to encourage them to stay calm and access those services when and if they feel it’s safe to do so.

“If that means going for a walk around the block with your mobile phone maybe do that, if that means sitting down over breakfast just reading the news on the laptop and then checking Women’s Safety Services and deleting the history.

“I want to encourage women to think they have survived for a long time, they will continue to survive, they know the strategies, trust themselves, but at the end of the day if they feel really unsafe I would highly encourage police intervention.”

Wendt has also called on the State and Federal Governments to focus on making sure women are aware of the key safety contacts and services, such as 1800 RESPECT, and to work with domestic violence organisation OurWatch to develop messages to men prompting patience and calmness in light of the coronavirus crisis.

“The Government also needs to think about how it’s going to resource those telephone crisis-counseling offices and how they’re going to fund those staff to be able to respond in a timely and appropriate way,” she says.

The State Government on Tuesday hosted a webinar for all stakeholders in the social services space – including domestic violence – to ask questions and relay concerns about the Government’s coronavirus response.

Meanwhile, those who feel safe to do so are encouraged to participate in the Zahara Foundation’s “Women on the Run” fun run this Sunday, starting at 8am at the Grange foreshore opposite the Grange Hotel.

The event will raise money for the Zahara Foundation and participants are also invited to carry personal care and grocery items in their backpack to donate at the end of the 4km run/walk to food charity Foodbank.

“We’ve tried to do everything we can to boost hygiene measures and I believe we’ve gone above and beyond the guidelines that the State and Federal Government are telling us to operate within,” Abrahimzadeh says.

“If you’re looking at the news cycle there’s really nothing else in the news but the coronavirus itself and also the impact it’s having on many things – the health sector, the economy, the share markets and people working from home.

“I think that the coverage of coronavirus itself has really just been focused on the health issue and now we see the economic impact, but I think we really need to think about the social impact of it as well.

“Hopefully we will be able to gain some traction with this event amid all of this to raise some much-needed funding for a good cause.”

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence call 1800 RESPECT on 1800 737 732. 

If this article has raised issues for you, you can call LifeLine on 13 11 14 

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