Disaster is well recognised as a trigger for men who choose to use violence. Studies have shown how family violence escalates during, and in the aftermath of, natural disasters such as bushfires and floods, and after the Global Financial Crisis. Men’s violence against women is so prevalent that the UN recently described it as a “shadow pandemic”, cautioning that while enforced quarantine measures are a protective factor against COVID-19 for most, for women experiencing family violence, the heightened risks for them, being confined with a violent partner, are inescapable and life threatening.
However, little systemic work has been done to map the relationship between disaster and economic abuse and its impacts on physical security.
Emerging data reveals that women are on the frontline of the pandemic largely due to the feminisation of poverty: women are much more likely to be engaged in casualised, insecure and precarious employment compared to men, which simultaneously heightens their risks to significant income loss and their exposure to physical and sexual violence. Women also perform the vast majority of unpaid domestic and caring labour globally (approximately 76%).
Significant life changes have also been recognised as precipitators for men who choose to use violence. Life changes can include financial hardship, pregnancy, illness, and disaster. COVID-19 as a global disaster has wrought unprecedented change in the way we live, interact with each other, and work. For violent men, loss of employment exacerbates the pressure and tensions of current circumstances under the isolation restrictions, in response to this, they increase their control over their partner (and children).
While there is clear evidence that family violence is increasing during isolation, it is not clear what the impacts are in terms of economic abuse. Nevertheless, it is likely that delays in the deployment of welfare payments may result in perpetrators forcing victims to apply for early release of superannuation, which could have detrimental impacts for women long into the future.
For women are dependent on the perpetrator for various reasons – disability, money or visa status – the lack of access to supports such as JobKeeper places them at even greater risk and effectively entraps them in unsafe relationships. The recent stabbing death of a Sydney woman on a temporary visa at the hands of her partner, in which a protection order was already in place, bears lucid witness to this.
The COVID-19 restrictions have complicated, if not impeded, family violence risk assessment, including assessment of economic abuse risk, and the realities of family violence during COVID-19 will not be fully understood for some time.
What can be done?
Strong gender-sensitive policies that protect the financial security of women are critically important in responding to, mitigating, and preventing family violence. This is particularly true for the poorest and most vulnerable women in society, such as women living in regional or remote areas and those exiting the prison system. Without adequate financial resources they are at greater risk of returning to violent partners.
The Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence (RCFV) triggered a significant shift in momentum for both business and the Victorian government to respond to the financial impact of family violence.
Of the 15 recommendations in its report, several addressed financial security and economic abuse including: enhancing the ability of community organisations to prevent and respond to financial stress; changing business processes to reduce the financial impact of family violence on customers; and changing infringement and tenancy laws.
Legislative changes in Victoria mean that some fines incurred as a result of family violence (for example speeding or parking fines by the perpetrator in the female partner’s car) can be waived. Tenancy laws have been changed so that debts incurred due to family violence can be assigned to the perpetrator and making it easier for a victim survivor to improve security of the property. New legal obligations have been introduced for energy and water businesses and the Victorian Government funded 20 specialist financial counsellors to work with clients who have experienced family violence and economic abuse.
Indeed, leadership has been demonstrated by many larger industry organisations across banking, insurance, utilities and telecommunications. For example, some industry codes impose obligations to have processes to identify and respond to customers experiencing family violence, many businesses have provided extensive family violence training to staff, and some have specialist teams to respond to the complex issues faced by these customers.
The role of business has never been more important than in this current COVID-19 environment, where it is difficult for victim survivors to seek help from family violence services.
These reforms have make a difference, but the work is ongoing to embed these new laws and policies, to encourage reforms in states outside Victoria and influence businesses and government bodies which are yet to engage.