Australia

The coronavirus lockdown has Australia's domestic violence shelters fearing for migrant women

Services say the lockdown measures are placing women at increased risk. Source: PA Wire

While some women’s shelters in Australia have reported an increase in the number of calls, those working with women in multicultural communities say the lines have gone quiet, and that’s even more concerning.

At one domestic and family violence service in a multicultural area of Melbourne, the number of calls for assistance is significantly down.

But it’s the lines going quiet that is the worry.

CEO of South East Community Links Rhonda Cumberland told SBS News she is concerned women wanting to leave their abusive partners are now at more risk as Australia tackles the coronavirus crisis by imposing lockdown measures. 

And for those who have migrated to Australia from a different country, they may be without a wide network of support. 

“Family violence generally has gone quiet in terms of any reporting, but for migrant women, in particular, you can imagine with all of the violence being contained in the home without any outlets available [it would be] just totally compressed into the home,” she said.  

Rhonda Cumberland says there has been an increase in overt calls for family violence help.
Rhonda Cumberland says there has been an increase in calls for family violence help.
Supplied

Her organisation works to provide settlement and other support services to the diverse areas surrounding Dandenong in Melbourne’s south-eastern suburbs, where roughly 70 per cent of residents come from non-English speaking backgrounds.

Ms Cumberland said without any access to public space due to the COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, coercion experienced by women at home was likely getting worse, and many may feel they now have no outlet to escape or seek help through.

“They have very few opportunities to make phone calls, to be in touch with friends who might support them, or go anywhere to engage in any type of community space,” Ms Cumberland said.

“The entrapment is real. It will last quite a long time. It’s very hard to reach these women at the best of times, but in these conditions, it’s just so much more difficult.” 

'People are very scared'

It’s a sentiment echoed by Annabelle Daniel, CEO of Women’s Community Shelters, a network of seven shelters across New South Wales for women who have experienced family and domestic violence.

As Google reports seeing the highest magnitude of searches for domestic violence help that they have seen in the past five years, with an increase of 75 per cent, Ms Daniel said her organisation has received a 30 per cent spike in the number of calls for information about what help is available. But that hasn’t been translated into the intake at the shelters.

“What that says to us is people are very scared for the potential for lockdown increasing the intensity of domestic or family abuse they might already be experiencing,” she said. 

“What a lockdown environment creates is a situation where you might be around someone who is abusive 24/7. What that does is it increases the potential for surveillance, monitoring phone and internet use, for listening in on conversations, to basically have eyes on someone all the time."

“One thing we do know about domestic and family abuse is that controlling behaviours that go on can absolutely be amplified in an isolation setting,”.

Federal government boost

Ms Daniel welcomed the Federal Government's announcement of an increase in $150 million in funding to support organisations working in domestic and family violence but said measures need to be in place to ensure the money ended up benefiting those on the frontline of the crisis.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Sunday announced the cash injection would go to boosting programs under the existing National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and Children.

The money will go towards counselling support for families experiencing family violence, the 1800RESPECT hotline, Mensline Australia, the Trafficked People Program and other support programs for women and children. 

"An initial $150 million will be provided to support Australians experiencing domestic, family and sexual violence due to the fallout from coronavirus," a media release from Mr Morrison's office read on Sunday. 

"A new public communication campaign will roll out to support those experiencing domestic violence over this period and to ensure those affected know where they can seek help."

The announcement was part of a broader $1.1 billion package to also improve mental health support and Medicare access during the coronavirus crisis. 

SBS News has requested comment from the Minister of Families and Social Services Anne Ruston about whether these measures are enough. 

Around one in six Australian women have experienced physical or sexual violence from a current or previous cohabiting partner, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. 

A 2019 report into family and domestic violence by the institute noted a distinct lack of primary data about whether multicultural women in Australia experienced family violence at a higher rate.   

The ABC reported on Sunday that women’s family violence organisation Wayss had received reports of men lying about having coronavirus in order to keep women at home in abusive situations.

Victoria Police told SBS News they had not seen an increase in the number of cases of family violence being reported to them in the early months of 2020. 

"While we acknowledge that it is a difficult and challenging time, there are no excuses for abusing a loved one,"  a police spokesperson said. 

"Victoria Police anticipates there could be a spike in family violence incidents reported to police and family violence services during this time due to heightened stress and uncertainty."

Family and domestic violence shelters are considered essential services and remain open to the public. 

Ms Daniel said it was important for women to know there are places available in shelters and there is support on hand for those who need it.

If you or someone you know is impacted by family or domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.

Women from migrant and refugee backgrounds who are experiencing family or domestic violence can contact inTouch, the Multicultural Centre Against Family Violence on 1800 755 988 or visit intouch.org.au.

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People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others and gatherings are limited to two people unless you are with your family or household.

If you believe you may have contracted the virus, call your doctor (don’t visit) or contact the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080. If you are struggling to breathe or experiencing a medical emergency, call 000.

SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments. News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus

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