The pandemic has provided the “perfect conditions” for domestic violence abusers, an expert says, following a string of high-profile cases in recent years.
Hayley Foster, the chief executive of Full Stop Australia — an organisation that supports domestic and family violence victims — said the frequency and severity of violence in the home had escalated during lockdowns.
“The pandemic [provided] the perfect conditions for perpetrators of violence and abuse in the home because they pretty much had the person they were abusing there 24/7, who was unable to get support, and [they] could monitor them all the time,” she said.
Loss of work and income as well as safety and childcare pressures caused by the pandemic fed into the conditions that led to abuse, she said.
She said that, for those who had experienced violence and abuse in an intimate partnership during COVID-19 lockdowns, two thirds had either reported an escalation in violence or abuse, or they experienced violence for the first time.
Tragedies — such as the murder of Brisbane woman Hannah Clarke and her three children by her estranged husband in 2020, and the murder of teenage siblings Jack and Jennifer Edwards by their father in 2018 — have raised awareness in the community of deadly domestic violence.
A survey of 15,000 women taken in May 2020 showed that one in 12 experienced physical violence from their live-in partner in the first three months of the pandemic, when most Australians were locked down.
More than one in five women experienced emotionally abusive and controlling behaviour from their live-in partners.
Half of the women who experienced violence or coercive control from a current or former live-in partner before the pandemic said the violence increased in the first three months of the pandemic.
Ms Foster said clear targets “to reduce violence towards zero” were required and needed to be properly funded.
Anne Ruston, the Federal Minister for Women’s Safety, said the national plan to reduce violence against women needed an absolute target of zero.
“There is no acceptable level of violence,” she said.
A study of 362 domestic violence providers surveyed by the Queensland University of Technology in mid-2020 revealed that almost two thirds, 62 per cent, said the pandemic restrictions had increased the number of clients wanting help for domestic violence.
An overwhelming 82 per cent of domestic violence workers said perpetrators had used isolation to control their victims.
Many domestic violence victims were forced to cohabit with perpetrators and experienced more surveillance and monitoring.
Nearly half, 43 per cent, of the domestic violence workers said abusers used the pandemic environment to control victims by making threats to the safety of women and their children.
Ms Foster said coercion, control and domination over somebody else was “the crux of what domestic and family violence is all about”.
“It could be monitoring and surveilling, it could be intimidation, it could be stalking, it could be things like cutting you off from your friends and family. All those things [are] intended to take control over that other person and restrict their autonomy,” she said.
Ms Ruston said coercive control was an insidious form of abuse against women.
“What the national plan is calling on from the states and territories is uniform definitions around domestic violence and what constitutes coercive control,” she said.
“So it doesn’t matter where a woman lives in Australia, she will get the same support under the same set of laws as she would in any other state and territory.”
Last year, the NSW and Queensland governments committed to making coercive control in intimate partner relationships a crime.