Women’s Safety and COVID-19: Response in a time of crisis
Published 14 May, 2020
Over the last three weeks we have seen the emergence of many positive responses to violence against women in the context of COVID-19. These major developments demonstrate the adaptability of both government and the sector in times of crisis.
Dedicated List in the Family Court and Federal Circuit Court
In late April, the Hon Will Alstergren, Chief Justice of the Family Court of Australia and Chief Judge of the Federal Circuit Court of Australia, announced that a dedicated COVID-19 court list was to commence on 29 April. The list would deal exclusively with urgent parenting-related disputes that have arisen due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The announcement was warmly welcomed by the sector, particularly Women’s Legal Services, who had been calling for cases involving family violence to be fast-tracked through the Courts.
The COVID-19 List responds to substantial increases in the number of urgent applications filed in the Courts in March and April. Over a four-week period, urgent applications increased by 39 percent in the Family Court of Australia and 23 percent in the Federal Circuit Court. Women’s Legal Services also advised that there had been a significant increase in the number of enquiries related to COVID-19 and parenting matters that they had received.
Chief Justice Alstergren said that eligible applications, “especially those involving issues of risk and family violence”, would be triaged, assessed and referred to a judge within 72 hours of assessment by a dedicated Registrar.
The dedicated list is expected to run for three months, subject to assessment of need.
National Help is Here campaign
In a joint media statement on 3 May, Senator Marise Payne, Minister for Women, and Senator Anne Ruston, Minister for Families and Social Services, announced a national campaign “to ensure people experiencing domestic, family and sexual violence know where to get help during the coronavirus pandemic.” Senators Payne and Ruston said the campaign is underpinned by two clear messages: “help is here, and tough times do not excuse tougher times at home.”
The Help is Here campaign is part of the $150 million Domestic Violence Support Package announced by the Prime Minister in early April. It aims to promote awareness of the two national helplines, 1800RESPECT and MensLine Australia, which both received additional funding in the package.
As I reported in the last Women’s Safety and Covid-19 update, the use of 1800Respect’s chat line increased by 20 percent in April. MensLine, operated by On the Line , saw a 34 percent increase in callers who reported family violence concerns between February and March.
On the Line Chief Executive Samantha Fredericks said “We want men to understand they can reach out for help before a situation escalates.”
The campaign strategy is being promoted in shopping centres, hospitals and GP surgeries, as well as across electronic, digital, social and print media.
Federal funds to scale up the Men’s Referral Service
A federal funding boost of $2.4 million has been allocated to No to Violence to expand the Victoria-based Men’s Referral Service.
Announced by Senator Anne Ruston, Federal Minister for Families and Social Services, this funding will enable the service to offer nation-wide telephone and online counselling to men who use violence.
The Men’s Referral Service logged a significant increase in calls over the month of April, including numbers in the last week of April that were 37 percent higher than same period last year. No to Violence Chief Executive Jacqui Watt explained that there have been particularly large spikes in calls after major announcements. “Whilst this is alarming, it also means more men are reaching out for support.”
The funding will also enable the service to improve support for individuals and organisations working with men who use violence during the pandemic.
eSafety Commission’s global information package on technology-facilitated abuse
Yesterday, 13 May, Australia’s eSafety Commissioner, Julie Inman-Grant, launched a global information pack to assist frontline workers around the world in supporting women who are victims of technology-facilitated abuse during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since coronavirus-related movement restrictions were put in place, the national online safety regulator has recorded increased reports of technology-facilitated abuse, including image-based abuse and sex-based extortion.
In a joint media statement, Senator Marise Payne, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Women, and Paul Fletcher, Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts, highlighted the increased risk of domestic and family violence for women in Australia and globally while home isolation measures were in place, and that perpetrators may use communications technology to harass, stalk and threaten.
The focus of the new resource is to support frontline workers to recognise the signs of technology-facilitated abuse, and pass on practical advice to victims to help them stay safely connected with their usual support networks.
Minister Payne noted that frontline workers such as social workers, doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals may be the only external contact a victim has during the pandemic; as such, increasing their knowledge about technology facilitated abuse is critical to women’s safety.
We are still in the early stages of gathering evidence about the changed landscape of violence against women during the Coronavirus pandemic. This raft of policy decisions shows that as that process progresses, we can expect a swift response.
Alongside our partners in the sector, ANROWS will continue to promote emerging evidence, to support the prioritisation of services under increased pressure and work to alleviate the impacts of the virus on women’s safety.
Dr Heather Nancarrow