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The Fierce Truth about Covid-19 and the hidden crisis

Written by Nicolle Edwards, CEO RizeUp Australia, guest contributor.

Our world is changing daily, and for most of us, social isolation to help combat the coronavirus crisis means staying safe at home with the people we care about.

While the health of everyone is important during the Covid-19 pandemic, we are very concerned about the threat to women and children who are being isolated in the home, potentially with a violent partner or family member.

For one in four women, social isolation means being locked-up in a dangerous place with an abusive partner, with no way to escape – with children possibly in the mix.

Not only is a victim living with the threat of the pandemic, but also the potentially lethal threat of violence.

Figures show one woman a week is killed by a current or former partner, and research shows that violence against women increases during times of anxiety.

These next few months living under Covid-19 restrictions will see a heightened risk due to financial insecurity, alcohol consumption and health concerns.

Being forced to share space with violent husbands or family members for extended periods of time can only exacerbate already stressful living conditions.

In the wake of reports of domestic abuse as much as tripling in China during recent periods of isolation, RizeUp Australia is already seeing evidence of that disturbing trend here in Australia.

We believe the impact of the coronavirus on women trapped in abusive relationships is a crisis, within a crisis - as financial and emotional pressures take their toll.

Sadly, the pandemic has already resulted in a spike in the number of women – and their families - looking to escape violence in their homes.

So much so, our charity, which offers a range of programs helping high-risk women and their children, is struggling to keep up with demand.

In fact, it was difficult keeping up with demand before Covid-19, but in recent weeks we’ve already seen our calls for help from services increase by 20%.

And with more people losing their jobs, being made redundant or working from home, and schools shutting down, the fear is these calls – and the violence against women – will further escalate.

RizeUp Australia’s primary focus is to reduce the incidence of domestic and family violence in Australia. At a practical level, we support families impacted by violence by helping them on their journey from violence to safety.

To do this we have created an innovative solution that brings communities together, increases volunteering and makes real, far reaching and practical contributions to these vulnerable families.

As a family leaves refuge, we furnish their new accommodation with everything they need to make it a home, so they can make a fresh start.

We also support affected children by providing everything they need to happily settle into a new school.

RizeUp Australia is a vital part of the service system across Australia and has established strong partnerships with specialist domestic violence services, which enable us to provide fast, flexible solutions to women and children in desperate situations.

We have developed processes and policies to underpin a safe, practical response, which enables us to work effectively with more than 360 volunteers and provide an add-value to service that existing specialist domestic violence organisations now depend on.

Frontline services rely on RizeUp Australia to safely transition victim/survivors of domestic violence from a life of fear and violence to one of safety and community.

Since launching in 2015, we have supported more than 1030 families – all already linked to crisis services across Australia - press the “restart button on a life free from violence”.

It is during times of stress that those at risk of family violence are likely to be most in danger, so it is vital women and children have the support they need to enable them to get to a safe place.

Our RizeUp Homes Program is supporting up to eight new families every week, who are at the greatest risk of homelessness and homicide.

But unfortunately, it’s still not enough as services are inundated with women fleeing violent relationships.

While the below factors aren’t the cause of violence, they are contributing factors that may cause violence to escalate:

• Financial instability / Job Loss

• Drugs and Alcohol consumption

• Physical / Mental Health concerns

• Imbalance of power and control within the intimate relationship

Violence against women is driven largely by gender inequality, the hyper masculine need for power and control and societal pressure reinforcing rigid gender roles within the family unit. When there is disruption to these existing stereotypes there is an increase of violence against women.

Using isolating behaviours and fear of the coronavirus pandemic as a guise of over-caring to further isolate the victims from their family, is a tactic used by violent men to control their victims.

Threatening to throw the victim and/or their children out of the home to get sick is as equally terrifying as being trapped inside. Some violence offenders will also withhold money or medications from the victim or children.

In cases of separation, there might be more withholding of the children by using social isolation as a controlling mechanism to stop access to the mother.

For many women, they rely on their external friends and family to stay connected and this provides them with some sense of safety.

Some women will recognise the different stages from within the cycle of violence and leave the house ‘until things cool down’ which for many is an effective safety tool that they would usually employ however now, with the Covid-19 pandemic women are trapped inside which will have a devastating impact on their health and safety and the health and safety of their children.

As I’ve already highlighted, there has already been a spike in calls to support services across the nation, and in Brisbane we have the highest number of women in motels than ever before.

People are calling support hotlines because they are frightened and worried that they won’t be able to get to safety in time and away from the person using violence.

It is hard enough for some victims to be able to get out and ask for support but even more so now when they are being monitored in a confined space and not able to safely reach out for assistance.

What is really important to remember right now though is that services are still available – how they are operating might look a bit different these days but they are still there and are still attended by the most experienced frontline staff who know best how to support the most vulnerable and at-risk people in our community.

Many women who are engaged with domestic violence services are telling their advocates that they are feeling unsafe about what lies ahead but what is crucial right now, is to know that services and help are still available.

1800RESPECT (1800737732) is the National Domestic and Family Violence Helpline and identifies a number of issues and risks present for women and children during a disaster. These include:

• Being blocked from accessing survival essentials including transport, food, water, heat and finances.

• Being put at risk by the challenges of enforcing protection orders in a disaster affected environment.

• Being faced by the return of men who have been violent in the past, as they take advantage of vulnerabilities resulting from the disaster, or their returning to take advantage of grant money.

• The limitations and pressures created by being made suddenly homeless by the disaster.

Some advice for those who might be concerned about being confined to a space with their perpetrator:

• Try and stay as connected as you can to the family and friends who are in your life by using FaceTime or video chat

• Connect with online groups to break down social-isolation

• Take breaks outside while maintaining social distancing.

• Have a mental safety plan in place: Make note of the places inside the home that are easy to get in and out of during a conflict.

• Create a safe word to share with your support network to let them know you need immediate help and for them to call the police.

• Consider creating a safe word that can be recognised by the children so when mum activates the safe word the children know to go to the designated safe space within the house.

• Keep the phones charged at all times

• Ensure the children in the home all know how to use the phone to call 000 should Mum activate the safe word or if Mum is unable to do that herself.

• If it is safe to do so, speak to your neighbours and give them permission to call the police should they suspect a violent incident is occurring. People need to know they are not interfering and it’s important to know that as the neighbour this is your business. Keeping women and children safe is all of our business. Now more than ever.

• Most importantly – Be gentle on yourself!

When considering giving safety plan advice, it is important to add in a bit of a preface to allow for the woman to always be the one making the decisions that are best for her.

There will be an increase in the amount of coercive control that is occurring within abusive relationships in this current climate so we (the broader friends, family and community) must never replicate perpetrators controlling behaviours by not listening to her needs and rather let the woman decide what is the best way to keep herself and her children safe.

The safety ideas listed above may not work for every woman. Women’s safety plans are unique to each case. Always listen to what she is saying as she will tell you what will work for her current situation.

As victims of domestic violence, women are faced with the burden of its complexity. But even more so now as we stare down the current health and economic crisis women might feel that their experience of violence at home is of low priority compared to the disaster preparation that is happening around them and then this might make them apprehensive to reach out.

As a society, it is imperative we continue to keep the increased vulnerability of women and children at the forefront of our minds.

How we respond when our friends and family reach out to us and disclose what is happening for them, largely determines what happens next. When our friends or family reach out to us, there are a few things we need to be mindful of. The first being that this current situation makes leaving a violent home more complex than ever before and we need to be particularly mindful around not jumping to the age old: “Why doesn’t she just leave?”.

Reasons that she might not leave may include:

• The fear of the unknown

• Even greater fear of loss of financial security

• Fear of being sent to a location unknown, isolated or unclean

• Difficulties of getting to a whole new location and potentially exposing herself and her children to the virus.

• If she gets sick how would she manage the children on her own.

• Fear of not being able to look after her children.

• Fear of homicide if she stays or death if she leaves and gets sick.

It is incredibly important that we communicate in a way that reassures the person disclosing that you believe them, you understand how terrifying this must be for them and to reinforce that there are services available to help them when they are ready to ask. It is important to remember that this might be the first time they have experienced violence at the hands of their intimate partner.

They might experience feelings of disloyalty or self-blame especially if they are no longer able to contribute financially to the family income due to a job loss. They might feel that the additional stress now placed on the person using violence is the cause and may justify this as a reason for the mismanagement of anger. There might be cultural factors that prevent her from leaving her husband as this would bring shame to the family.