Comparing the Morrison Govt's response to what's needed for women's safety during the COVID-19 crisis

Analysis current as at 7 April 2020.

While requiring people to stay at home is an important measure for limiting the spread of COVID-19, domestic violence experts are warning that during home isolation men's use of violence against their partners and children is likely to intensify, putting many people's lives at risk.

Outside of pandemics, we know that abusers use isolation, coercion and surveillance against their partners, and work to cut them off from other relationships so they can fully control them. Those existing patterns of abuse will be compounded as victim-survivors are forced to stay in a confined space with their abuser. And many women will find it harder to access support services from home.

Experts have laid out key interventions that the Morrison Government needs to implement for women’s safety (here). But so far their response has left massive holes in that safety net.

Join the campaign fighting for governments act for women's safety here.

Here are the changes the Australian Women Against Violence Alliance are calling for, and how Government responses compare to what’s needed:

1. Reinstate the funding cuts from domestic violence services

A new phone can be a lifeline when a woman is escaping an abuser. It can help her stay safe, stay connected to support systems and service, and prevent further abuse. 

The Morrison Government was set to end funding of the WESNET program that distributes smartphones to hundreds of victim-survivors of domestic and sexual violence each month. But the Government has recently announced funding that will allow this work to continue until the end of the year. The funding announced isn’t the long-term commitment that a vital service like this needs, but it will mean that they can maintain their work supporting victim-survivors throughout this pandemic.

What’s more, the National Family Violence Prevention Legal Services Forum is due to have their vital work cut from June. These cuts need to be reversed urgently so these services can focus on delivering services to women whose safety and lives are at risk.

Current policy: The Morrison Government has committed funding that will allow Safe Phones to continue their work this year, but not in the long-term. They still have not committed the funding needed to maintain the National Family Violence prevention Legal Services Forum, despite the urgent need to maintain their capacity.

2. Make sure people know where they can access service support, by ensuring service access numbers are promoted to the community throughout the crisis 

People who need help need to know where to get it. In the past, public communications have been critical to reaching women and enabling them to connect with services. 

Current policy: The Morrison Government has indicated they plan to roll out a new public communication campaign to ensure people know where they can seek help. While further information is needed on what shape this will take, at first glance this seems like a positive commitment.

BUT (and it’s a big but) we can only improve women’s safety if those at risk are able to access a safe phone to make that contact, and if their request for help is able to be met by services. A public communication campaign that isn’t accompanied by adequate funding to the specialist services that help women be safe will leave many women in danger - when we know the time a woman tries to reach out for help is often a time of greatest danger.

3. Resource specialist hotlines to respond to requests for support

Experts have urged the government to increase federal funding to boost the capacity of domestic violence helplines 1800 RESPECT and the Men’s Referral Service, and other entry points for assistance like Kids Helpline, Mensline and Safety Net Australia. Experts have advised that online help and secure chat is likely to become more and more important as abusers intensify their surveillance and control.

Current policy: The Morrison Government has announced a funding package of $150 million spread across six service areas. They’ve indicated that this package will include some additional funding for 1800 RESPECT and Mensline, but detail has not been made available on how much funding will be provided (and whether it will include funding for the Men’s Referral Service, as the specialist service best able to intervene with men using or considering using violence).

BUT funding for these hotlines will only improve women’s safety if it’s marched with an increase in the specialist services they refer to, to provide the ongoing help victim-survivors need to be safe.

4. Ensure women can access the specialist service support they need

Women at risk in their home need to be able to access specialist services that can assist them with things like: case management; individualised support with safety planning; legal assistance to navigate courts and legal processes; and therapeutic support for themselves and their children as they deal with the trauma caused by their abuser. Such support must be available to those remaining in their homes and as well as those who have had to move to refuges or temporary accommodation for their own safety.

Current policy: The Morrison Government’s funding package includes funding to State and Territory Governments that can be used for safer housing and emergency accommodation,  counselling and outreach, crisis support and helplines, men’s behaviour change programs and other perpetrator interventions, assisting frontline services to manage the demand and explore new technology-based service delivery methods, and responding to the unique challenges in regional, rural and remote locations.  We do not yet know how the State and Territory Government will spend the money. So far we are not seeing the Morrison Government commit to resourcing services at the scale needed to ensure women at risk can access the support they need.


5. Resource safe at home programs so that women and children who can safely stay in their home are supported to do so

Even before this crisis, in NSW alone, every day 63 women weren’t able to access the service support they need to be safe in their home. Without that support, women are forced to make an impossible choice between staying trapped with their abuser; or fleeing into temporary and unreliable crisis accommodation, or homelessness.This is an impossible choice made even more dangerous in the context of the COVID-19 lock down.

Current policy: The Morrison government has announced that their most recent funding package will include “Support programs for women and children experiencing violence to protect themselves to stay in their homes, or a home of their choice, when it is safe to do so” but it is not clear how this will be delivered. Given the overall funding is $150 million spread across six areas, the funding to safe at home programs will fall well short of the $180 million of federal funding that experts have said is needed to demand in this one service area.

6. Ensure refuges are resourced to support victim-survivors who can’t safely stay at home 

As men’s violence against their partners and children intensifies, experts are warning that the need for physical refuge will increase. Already there are more women needing physical refuge than spaces to house them. The physical capacity of refuges needs to be increased, along with the staffing to support women who are in crisis.

Current policy: The Morrison Government has a capital works grant program in place (Safe Places), but it requires matched funding, and is tied just to the physical building, with no funding for other services support for the women who are at such high risk they need to be sheltered. New funding to State and Territory Governments can be used for “safer housing and emergency accommodation” but it is not clear if this will increase the physical capacity of refuges. 

7. Ensure every woman subjected to violence is able to access the support she needs to be safe, regardless of her visa status or disability

Financial abuse is often a tactic used to trap women in abusive relationships, and cut off their avenues to leave and establish a safer future. Economic insecurity can be an insurmountable barrier to escaping escalating violence.

Many women with a disability are reliant on others for assistance with their care; and this makes them more vulnerable to violence, abuse and control, including in some cases from those who are supposed to be their carer.

As COVID-19 limits access to support workers, and increases the costs and difficulties of accessing basic resources like groceries and medications; financial resources are more important than ever, and linked with the victim-survivor’s reliance on the person who is abusing them, and whether they can access alternate avenues for their basic needs.

As costs rise and access to many services becomes more difficult,  experts have urged the Government to ensure the increases that have been extended to other support payments are also applied to the disability support payment. 

This crisis makes everything harder for all victim-survivors to access support, and to be safe. Those on temporary visas already find it hard to access services, income and basic healthcare due to strict eligibility criteria, and women in this situation who are facing violence are often already socially isolated by their abuser. Loss of income due to COVID-19 is creating increased barriers for women trying to leave violent relationships during this difficult time. The risks they face are likely to  be compounded by perpetrators withholding and blocking access to healthcare and finances; and they face increased uncertainty about their migration status if they are to reach out for help. Experts have outlined that women in this situation urgently need access to income, housing, health services, interpreters and legal assistance.

Current policy: In response to the pandemic, the Morrison Government has increased the rate of Newstart, Youth Allowance, Parenting Payment, Farm Household Allowance and Special Benefit. But they have not extended that same dignity to people living on the disability support payment; and people on temporary visas are still not eligible for income support as a general rule, with many also ineligible for Medicare.

8. Ensure the legal system prioritises safety 

Even before the COVID19 pandemic, many women and children facing violence were not getting proper protection against their abusers from police and courts. 

These systemic failures, like the failure to properly resource courts and support services with public money have caused a lack of accountability for perpetrators. This has devastating results - like children being used as a way to hurt partners. These systemic failures can also lead men to continue and escalate their violence, in some cases murdering their partner and children. 

Police and courts need to step up to prioritise women’s and children’s safety during this time of increased risk. The safety of women and children must be at the top of the agenda for the legal system.

Protection orders during this time must prioritise the safety of women and children, particularly as they are being put in place for longer periods than usual during this crisis. The legal system must be particularly vigilant regarding custody orders and their enforcement or adjustment during the pandemic. Where perpetrators currently in custody are being released back into the community, protective measures must be put in place for victim-survivors; and the Departments of Corrections needs to make sure infection controls are in place to prevent people passing on COVID-19 contracted in prison.

Given pre-existing issues with police mis-identification of perpetrators and victims, and the disproportionate focus on policing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and communities of colour - consultation with culturally safe services during this time (and at all times) will be key. 

The trauma of colonisation and oppression is directly linked to the complexity and prevalence of family violence that exists in First Nations communities today. The justice system must work in true partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Family Violence Prevention Legal Services and Aboriginal Legal Services to provide culturally safe services to First Nations people.

As the Government evolves its legal responses to this crisis, experts are calling for the management of safety risks to victim-survivors to be made a priority, and for resources and public money not be diverted from this area. In addition they are calling for policing approaches to be developed in consultation with culturally safe specialist family violence services. 

Current policy: The Morrison Government is yet to make any commitments in this area. 

9. Maintain access to contraception and abortion care 

Experts are warning that the current physical distancing measures will increase men’s use of violence and abuse - and that will include sexual violence and reproductive coercion. 

We know that forced pregnancy can be used by abusers in an attempt to tie their partner to them, and make it more difficult for them to escape and re-establish a separate life.

Experts are calling for women who need abortion care during this pandemic to be able to access it - like all other essential healthcare. That means ensuring clinics and delivery avenues for medical abortion care remain operational, and that clients can access care. 

Current policy: so far the Morrison Government have not provided any public guidance on what, if any, non-COVID related services will remain open, including abortion-care.

10. Guarantee additional resourcing for specialist family violence workers - so services can pay the required wage to their workers, and keep serving women’s safety needs 

To address historic underpayment of workers in the community services industry, a court order has been put in place requiring an incremental increase in their remuneration - including for workers in specialist domestic and family violence and sexual violence services. To meet those obligations, Governments must factor this mandatory increase in the cost of delivering services into all government funding commitments. 

Current policy: The Morrison Government have made no commitments in this area so far.


Join the campaign fighting for governments act for women's safety here.