Family violence workers in Australia are concerned they are not yet seeing the full picture of violence that has occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns, a webinar hosted by The George Institute for Global Health and the Australian Human Rights Institute has heard.
The webinar moderated by Dr Janani Shanthosh presented findings from collaborative research on the experiences of family violence sector workers in Australia, and what they need ahead of the next wave of clients needing support.
Dr Jagnoor Jagnoor, Head of Injury Division, The George Institute for Global Health India and Co-director WHO Collaborating Centre for Injury Prevention and Trauma Care, discussed the global picture of gender-based violence in the pandemic.
Brazil has reported a 40-50 per cent rise in interpersonal violence, while there has been a 35 per cent increase in the UK, China, India and South Africa.
Dr Patricia Cullen of the UNSW Sydney School of Population Health discussed a sub-study within the collaborative COVID-19 and Women's Health and Wellbeing project, aimed at understanding the experiences of frontline family violence workers.
In 50 in-depth interviews between July and October, Australian health, legal and specialist family violence workers discussed the impact of the pandemic on their work and how they were adapting to the new conditions.
While the need to socially distance had seen many organisations adopt online services, known in Australia as Telehealth, participants had mixed feelings about it. Some thought it had removed barriers to accessing support, while others felt it carried safety, privacy and confidentiality risks for clients.
The major issue that workers identified was the challenge of their work being brought into their own homes during this time.
"The people we spoke to are already clearly working on the frontline of the family and domestic violence epidemic that we have in Australia, but then they were suddenly thrust into this new realm of being an 'essential worker,'" Dr Cullen said.
"People talked a lot about the realities of being an 'essential worker', when they'd never signed up to be what's now classed as an essential worker, and it was quite confronting. Simultaneously working in domestic and family violence, which was amplified during the pandemic, but also being on the frontlines of the pandemic."
But the main concern for many workers was that women in crisis were falling between the cracks.
"There was a sense that many of their clients had not been able to make contact, and they worried for them, and worried about what was come for them," Dr Cullen said.
Hayley Foster, CEO Women’s Safety NSW agreed that the demanding workload and the lack of separation between work and home had been major challenges for the workforce. The pandemic had come on top of summer's bushfires, and a commissioning and tendering process for family violence services.
"Everyone's extremely exhausted," Ms Foster said.
"They are just limping towards the end of the year, but also anxious because we know there's always an increase in demand, an increase in violence and abuse being experienced over the Christmas and New Year and then after that, all of the actual service demand rises.
"We know that women will often de-prioritise their safety during that time, they may not reach out for help until afterwards, and there will be an absolute onslaught. There will be serious incidents over the summer period. It's a terrible thing to be able to ... state that fact with such certainty."
Nadine Taylor, a registered nurse and founder of Hope and Heal, spoke about how health services could improve their responses to family violence, including better access to domestic violence leave for their own staff.
"Unless we look after our own staff, how are we going to look after our patients who are experiencing domestic violence?" Ms Taylor said.
The COVID-19 and Women's Health and Wellbeing project brings together expertise from The George Institute for Global Health, UNSW Medicine including the School of Public Health and Community Medicine, and UNSW Arts and Social Sciences including the Gendered Violence Research Network.
The research aims to help clinicians and policymakers more rapidly and effectively help some of the most vulnerable members of the community in this emergency and future pandemics.
It is supported by a UNSW Rapid Response Research program. Read more about the project here.