Domestic violence: understanding the shadow pandemic

As one plague battered the world this year, another was hiding in the shadows. Domestic violence rates soared souring lockdown – with experts working hard to find ways to help victims.

Domestic violence is the shadow pandemic that hid behind the deadly threat of COVID-19.

The Australian Institute of Criminology reported that one in 20 women experienced some form of domestic violence from their living partner during February, March, and April this year.

Associate Professor Silke Meyer, who is deputy director of the Gender and Family Violence Prevention Centre at Monash University, says that the causes are difficult to identify, but the lockdown made it worse.

“The pandemic has exacerbated the stress factors that we already know are associated with the risk of domestic violence, such as unemployment, financial stress, housing stress, mental health issues, drug and alcohol use as a coping mechanism,” she says.

AUDIO: Dr Meyer describes the “shadow pandemic”.

“It has contributed to the increase of domestic violence and people’s use or experience of it.”

Professor of social work at Swinburne University Jennifer Martin says it is known that people who have the higher standing in a relationship can be susceptible to losing control in times of stress, if they are prone to violence.

Professor Jennifer Martin says “people are being locked away at home with their perpetrator so naturally that is going to intensify the situation”. (Nemanya Medic)

“The pandemic has shone a spotlight, because people are being locked away at home with their perpetrator. Naturally that is going to intensify the situation and if there’s not some process put in place, you would naturally see an increase,” Prof Martin says.

Manipulation on top of abuse

Dr Meyer says the tactics of beginning or continuing physical/sexual violence against victims have made the home a more manipulative place than ever before.

“Perpetrators have used the pandemic to further isolate/manipulate victims into staying, scare victims into staying, threatening to expose victims, telling victims things that are not necessarily true in terms of whether they are allowed to leave the house and whether they can seek help, and whether crisis accommodation is even available. It is much easier for perpetrators to nurture and do that 24/7,” she says.

Emotional manipulation and coercion becomes easier in a lockdown, when survivors are limited in their ability to leave or to seek help, given the tight restrictions.

“We know from the help-seeking literature that a lot of survivors in the first instance have had a lot of support from family, friends, but because of the lockdown we have seen isolation cutting a lot of those ties,” Dr Meyer says.

Help from community and neighbours

The lockdown means neighbours are also more at home and might be in a position to help, Dr Meyer says.

“They [the neighbours] were much more likely to be exposed to or witness something that otherwise might go unnoticed.”

She says the establishment of a bystander support line would be helpful.

“We could do something that’s dedicated to those that may witness or may do something but need more information to figure out what the best way forward is to support somebody, or whether this is a high risk scenario and what you should be doing beyond just calling the police,” she says

A neighbour who attempted to intervene by knocking on the abuser’s door may also be putting themselves in danger.

There have been suggestions there could be more support from service workers outside their work hours, when they are functioning as members of the community. There could also be a greater response from other members of the community who are not directly involved in these cases.

But Professor Martin says this can be difficult because service workers can feel that the responsibility they already have as support workers during their work hours is enough.

“People don’t like increased regulation but if we had no tolerance for abuse and all abuse has to be reported, you know that would make a difference and not just as a social worker. It could be broader in that people can bring a community responsibility, rather than they’ve only got that responsibility from 9-5,” she says.

Other ways to help

Men who are worried about their own actions can call a Men’s referral service, operated by the No to Violence Group, for help.

Dr Meyer says early in the lockdown, more men contacted the service.

“[The men’s referral service] reported they had an early increase in phone calls from men saying, ‘I’m concerned about my behaviour, I don’t want to get to a stage where I am physically abusive, I need some support’. I wonder once these other services – whether that’s in relation to drug and alcohol use or mental health or just GPs for a general visit – become more accessible, whether we also see men getting more support,” she says.

More recently, the Victorian Government has expanded its Orange Door support service – a free service for those affected by family violence – by introducing a new central hub of sites in regional Victoria.

With the COVID-19 restrictions becoming less severe in Victoria and other areas, this will hopefully clear the danger that made domestic violence a shadow pandemic in the first place.

For more information on where to get help in Victoria, check out the various statewide services here: