“Those women who were able to seek support, the complexity of their needs was very much visible and we were able to directly connect it to COVID-19.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) has labelled domestic violence a “shadow pandemic”, exacerbated by COVID-19 - and Australia has been no exception.
A July survey from the Australian Institute of Criminology found that more than eight per cent of women who lived with their partner had experienced physical violence during the pandemic, increasing to more than 11 per cent for those who had experienced emotionally abusive, harassing and controlling behaviours.
Meanwhile, 54 women - more than one a week - have allegedly been killed in Australia as a result of violence, domestic or otherwise, this year, according to the Counting Dead Women project by advocacy group Destroy the Joint.
As COVID-19-induced lockdowns were introduced across the country, they created a dangerous storm of risk-factors: not only was the severity of domestic violence likely to increase, isolation also made it harder, if not impossible, to provide support to those in need.
Service providers quickly changed their operating models. They bolstered their online information portals, swapped to phone meetings, and built relationships with other organisations, such as schools, which could help monitor for worsening signs of violence if they were unable to meet with clients.
At SARA, a Gold Coast domestic violence support provider that caters specifically to women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, Ms Ristic said it meant support workers were putting in long hours, outside of the “normal nine to five working zone”, to ensure they were available whenever a survivor isolating with her abuser was able to make a call.
“Many women that we support were trapped in their home by the people using violence, which really limited the window of opportunities for them to reach out for support,” she said.
“A very significant percentage of those women speak very basic English and rely on interpreters. Very often what would happen, we would try to book the appointment time and then book an interpreter in advance, and when everything is lined up, she's not safe to talk.”
Naomi Pfitzner, a researcher at Monash University who has been studying the impact of COVID-19 on domestic and family violence, said many support workers were also impacted by lockdowns, listening to women detail traumatic experiences from their bedrooms or living rooms.
“Our research really showed the toll that remotely providing support for family violence survivors was having on the practitioners doing this work,” she said.
The closure of public libraries - often the only place women are able to access the internet - also limited the effectiveness of support services going entirely online, as many other sectors did during the pandemic.
As SARA falls under the umbrella of migrant and refugee settlement services, Ms Ristic said often it was a case of finding five minutes in an unrelated consultation to check in on a woman’s safety.
“The fact that the abusive partner didn’t really know that we represented a domestic and family violence support program gave them a little bit more flexibility to talk to us,” she said.
It forced organisations to come up with creative ways of reaching women, such as the recent ‘shop-a-docket’ scheme by Melbourne's Eastern Domestic Violence Service (EDVOS), which placed contact information for support services on supermarket receipts and on advertisements in shopping centres.
Under Victoria’s second lockdown, only one person was allowed to leave the home for groceries, which allowed people in abusive situations a brief window of time to seek help.
"It's a safe and discreet way of them getting information because the perpetrator will not notice information hiding in her bag or in her shoe sole, this is just the back of a receipt," EDVOS CEO Christine Mathiesonsaid.
"We've had so many women calling us from the hallway of shopping malls, from shopping mall toilets, borrowing the phone from a supermarket to give us a call."
In one instance, Ms Mathieson said a woman in her 80s who only spoke Cantonese called the service for help after spotting an in-language poster in a shopping centre in Melbourne's east.
"She had been experiencing family violence for more than 20 years, but she had no idea where to seek support, she didn't speak English she was all by herself ... and as soon as she saw it, she just reached out," she said.
Dr Pfitzner said providers have also reported "a significant increase" in women coming forward after experiencing violence for the first time.
In a survey of 166 Victorian domestic and family practitioners during the first lockdown in April, Dr Pfitzner also found a 59 per cent increase in the frequency of violence and a 50 per cent increase in the severity of violence being experienced during that period.
“What we saw during the lockdown was that, unfortunately, many women were isolating in homes with their abusers … and they talked about having no privacy to seek support during that time,” Dr Pfitzner said.
“So what we think will likely happen now is more women and children who were experiencing family violence during lockdown will seek support.”
Since September, Ms Ristic said SARA has seen an increase in women seeking support after the lockdowns and looking to create a safety plan.
EDVOS has also seen an influx of calls for help following the lifting of the second lockdown. "Now, we are actually seeing an increase in the number of family violence referrals as well as the highest number of high-risk cases," Ms Mathieson said.
And with holiday periods traditionally seeing an increase in violence, the number of calls for help is only likely to increase.
"This year we have a longer period of holidays, so I think we will be really busy in after-hours," she said. "We really need everyone playing a role, in not only supporting those who may be experiencing domestic violence but promoting gender equality and respect in everything you do."
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, family or domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.