20 October, 2020
I rise tonight, sadly, to raise the health crisis that is not getting the mobilisation and focus needed. It's a shadow pandemic and an ongoing national emergency. The scourge of domestic and family violence has long simmered away in our suburbs, but the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns and restrictions have led to a devastating escalation. Between financial stress, increased substance abuse, uncertainty about the future, increased financial stress and restricted freedom of movement, the pandemic has created a perfect storm.
At the recent National Press Club address, the chair of Our Watch, Natasha Stott-Despoja, raised some horrific statistics about the escalation in domestic violence during COVID-19. A survey of 15,000 Australian women found that nearly one in 20 of them were assaulted sexually or physically by a current or former partner between March and May. Two-thirds of those women said the violence started or escalated in that period. Reports of financial abuse are on the rise as well, with the pandemic used to justifying controlling behaviours like limiting access to money or making threats about the family's economic stability. Sadly, today in Sydney, yet another woman was killed. She had a current AVO out against her ex-partner and he is now in police custody.
These facts are raised all too often, and insufficient action results. It must change. These experiences are consistent across Australia, and in Warringah as well. In Warringah, I'm hearing from service providers like Community Northern Beaches that there has been an increase in inquiries requesting information—women asking questions like 'What can I do legally? What government assistance is there if I leave? Where can I go?'
The issue of crisis accommodation is complicated. The Northern Beaches Women's Shelter had to reduce their numbers of available beds in order to comply with COVID-19 health guidelines. They were therefore listed as having no vacancies, so homeless referrals were directed elsewhere, often to the hotel accommodation that was temporarily provided by the state government—and, while this was a welcome provision from the government, those hotel rooms did not necessarily come with the support networks that are needed for crisis accommodation in these cases. The shelter also reported an increase in the number of women on temporary visas experiencing homelessness due to domestic violence. At the Manly Warringah Women's Resource Centre, the spike came in July, when they had 67 women referred to them in just one month. This coincided with a dramatic rise in visits to their website: over the six months between March and August, they had a 60 per cent increase in visits to the site, with nearly 87 per cent being new visitors.
With this documented escalation of violence during COVID-19, it was disappointing to see the national Women's Safety Council fail to take any further action in respect of family and domestic violence at their meeting on 7 August. Not only were there no measures committed to nor any additional funds committed; the council has reduced their meetings to once per quarter, instead of monthly. Among the sector, there is also concern about the lack of transparency in the operations of the council and their lack of consultation with service providers. Back in March, in the immediate aftermath of the horrific murder of Hannah Clarke and her three children, a letter was written by 67 groups providing services in the women's safety sector. The letter was addressed to members of the Women's Safety Council and called for urgent and immediate changes to improve women's safety. Sadly, we did not see an increase in funding in the budget announcements, and I urge the government to commit to making domestic violence a policy priority and to support the changes requested.
Of course, any discussion about domestic or family violence raises challenges that men are victims too, and they are. But consistent research does show that the violence experienced by men and women is different. Ninety-five per cent of all victims of violence, male or female, experience it at the hands of a male. Women typically experience violence from someone they know, often over a long period of time, while men typically experience it from a stranger as a one-off event. But, let's be clear, all forms of violence must be called out and prevented.
We need to look at prevention. This is a social problem, and we all have a duty to be part of the solution. We must change this. I can't raise this issue without being concerned for anyone in such a situation, so this is a reminder to anyone in an abusive situation or concerned about someone who might be: please reach out.