I met Lucy in a park after witnessing an intense argument with her partner, who stormed off. Lucy was visibly shaking and I called out to see if she was okay. I learned that she was experiencing domestic violence. She was new to the area, not in contact with her family, and unsure of her options.
Over the past few weeks I’ve been thinking of Lucy often, and of women in situations like hers. By sheer coincidence I was in the park that day and able to offer to help. But what will increasing measures of social distancing and isolation mean for women experiencing violence and their chances to reach out for help?
It is well-documented that during times of crisis and disaster, incidences of domestic and family violence increase. Indeed, we are already seeing peaks in access to services. Women’s Community Shelter estimate an increase of 25-30 percent in calls for assistance; and we’re just at the beginning. Google searches for domestic violence support have gone up 75% in recent weeks.
While isolation and social distancing are crucially important for controlling the spread of COVID-19, they can also elevate and exacerbate existing experiences of domestic and family violence, which are rooted in power and control.
For example an abuser may withhold necessary items such as food, sanitiser or medicine, may share misinformation about the pandemic to control or frighten or may threaten or prevent access to children or other family members, among other tactics.
As more and more workplaces move towards work from home arrangements, office closures and stand downs, it is important to remember that two in three women experiencing violence are in the workforce.
The health and safety of all employees must be the top priority, and considering what these changes mean for employees experiencing violence and ensuring support is available is a critical part of this.
What can employers do?
This is a difficult time for all employers – big and small – but all workplaces have a responsibility to support their employees experiencing violence. Some steps workplaces should take include:
- ensuring that team leaders and people managers understand your existing Domestic and Family Violence policy (where one exists) and the provisions available under it;
- ensuring employees have access to the policy and understand the process of reaching out for support;
- acknowledge that there may be risks for people working from home or remotely in communicating openly and have advice or alternatives available, and;
- ensure trained first responders within the workplace understand the increased risk and refresh their knowledge on support offered by the organisation and referral pathways.
The responsibility for ensuring women are safe doesn’t sit with government and service providers alone.
We each have a role to play and our role as bystanders has never been more important. With less social interaction, and decreased opportunity for intervention, it’s up to each of us to check in regularly with our family, friends, and colleagues – in agreed and safe ways.
How can you support someone experiencing violence during COVID-19?
When supporting someone experiencing violence, it is important to listen non-judgmentally to them and support their choices, as they know the patterns and behaviour better than anyone else. Some steps you can take include:
- check in on them regularly, in agreed, safe ways i.e. via phone or video call;
- agree on a safe word, sign or signal that the person experiencing family violence can use to alert you that they need you to get help;
- offer to store copies of important personal documents, or an emergency bag, in case the person chooses to leave during this time;
- download the ‘Daisy’ app (or the ‘Sunny’ app for women with disability) and encourage the person to do so too (if safe for them to do so). These apps connect women with their local service providers, have features enabling safe exit, emergency texts to selected contacts and safe browsing;
- consider developing or updating a safety plan with the person, both for within the home, and should they choose to leave. Importantly, COVID-19 travel restrictions and other changes will have an impact, it’s important to consider alternatives;
- make sure you understand your workplace policy and its provisions (if one exists), in order to help colleagues access support, and;
- donate to local women’s crisis support services and shelters.
Lucy was able to access support because there were bystanders around. We all need to step up to ensure that Lucy, and women like her, are able to reach out for support, even when we cannot physically be around.
If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, call 000.
If you need help and advice, call 1800Respect on 1800 737 732, Men’s Referral Service on 1300 766 491 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.