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Domestic and Family Violence: Australia’s Shadow Pandemic



Senator Jenny McAllister


This speech was delivered in the Australian Senate on 25 August 2020.


The pandemic has emphasised the importance of home. As opportunities to be out and in the company of others have been lost, we’ve retreated to our houses. We’ve video called friends, home schooled our children, exercised, eaten and entertained ourselves.  

For millions of Australians, home has been a sanctuary from the fear and threats of the outside world. But that hasn’t been the experience for all. For too many women the fear and the threats have come from inside the home. 

Family violence was a national crisis before the pandemic. Lockdowns and self-isolation have only exacerbated it. Women and children have found themselves stuck at home with their abuser.  

The results have been unsurprising. Kim Sattler, a domestic violence worker in my home state of NSW, told ABC news:  

"We are seeing older women like we have never seen before trying to flee domestic violence and the level of violence the women are experiencing is more extreme than we have seen before.”

The Australian Institute of Criminology surveyed 15,000 women. Two thirds of those who reported violence over the last three months said it had either started or intensified during the lockdown.  

A survey of frontline domestic violence workers supports that assessment. Workers across the country reported that incidents spiked since the start of the pandemic. Violence is more frequent and severe, with a disturbing increase in reports of first-time family violence.

Providers reported that the pandemic has been used to justify financial control such as limiting access to money or making threats about the family's economic stability.

When women are economically dependent, they are at greater risk of becoming trapped in a violent home. As Professor Cathy Humphreys wrote in a recent article, research shows that women are at a greater risk of domestic violence at times of disaster, and “the most significant protective factor for women was employment.”

The cost of childcare, unequal pay and discrimination mean the odds are stacked against women at the best of times. The economic consequences of COVID-19 have only made things worse. We know that women are bearing the brunt of job losses. Women are less likely to be able to keep their jobs, and less likely to have the financial independence to leave their violent partners.  

One in four women have experienced abuse at the hands of a current or former partner. Most Australians will know one of these women. They are our mothers, grandmothers, sisters, nieces, daughters, friends, neighbours and colleagues. They all have a right to be safe in their homes.   

Last year, the government announced funding for the construction of much needed housing for women and children fleeing violence. They have yet to confirm where $60 million of the funding will go.

Family violence services and workers continue to call for more funding, support and communication from the Federal Government. 

The United Nations described domestic violence as the “shadow pandemic”.

COVID-19 has shown what we as a society are truly capable of when faced with adversity. How we can make sacrifices, adapt, care for one another, advocate for workers and the elderly.  

We are facing down the pandemic. What would it look like for us to mobilise and face down the shadow pandemic of domestic violence as well?  

34 Australian women have been killed in a family violence incident this year. We have attended too many vigils. It’s time to act. 


Note: This article is based on a speech delivered in the Australian Senate.

Jenny McAllister is a Labor Senator representating NSW in the Australian Senate. Facebook Twitter

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