Kara FVS news
July 15, 2020

DR Ilsa Evans writes about the traumatic effects of 2020

15 July 2020

Dr. Ilsa Evans, Higher Instance Education Coordinator at Chisholm, Melbourne and member of the Kara House Board writes about the traumatic effects of 2020 on women and how it will continue to reverberate for women for years to come.

The year 2020 began in the midst of a bushfire crisis, before sliding almost seamlessly into a pandemic that necessitated an unprecedented global response. Impacts have been felt on every societal level - macro, meso and micro. Lives lost, economies battered, along with job security, tourism, education, and immigration. With regard to COVID-19, there is no doubt that Australia has weathered the situation comparatively well. Nevertheless, particularly as much of Victoria enters a second period of lockdown, there would be very few people across the nation who have not felt the effects in some way.

However, disaster situations are also a little like icebergs, in that many ramifications are less visible than others. One of these is the gendered nature of both the immediate impacts and the longer-term recovery. Data collated by Women’s Health East (2020) reveal that the women are disproportionately affected. They form the majority of essential workers, and they are also in the lowest paid jobs. At the same time, women are performing far more unpaid labour during lockdown, including the responsibility for education at home. 55% of job losses related to COVID-19 belong to women, while the majority of the casual workers unable to access job-keeper payments are women, and women are depleting their superannuation at a higher rate than men. The mental health impacts of COVID-19 are also gendered, with women experiencing higher rates of depression, anxiety, and stress, while the Women’s Mental Health Clinic at the Alfred Hospital has seen a 2800% increase in demand.

In addition, existing gender inequalities are often exacerbated during a health crisis. Women already provide disproportionate care in both the workplace (70% of workers in the health and social services sectors are women), and at home (globally, women perform 76% of unpaid care work). Early evidence already indicates that women are facing increased financial insecurity. The situation is exacerbated by more time being spent at home due to isolation measures and, for many, the home also now being their workplace (Workplace Gender Equality Agency, 2020). Yet, simultaneously, evidence has long indicated that, for women, home is the most dangerous place to be (UN Office on Drugs and Crime, 2018).  The bottom line is that one of the most potentially harmful impacts of the pandemic, for women and their children, is a heightened risk of domestic violence.

Relationship violence increases in the wake of a disaster. For instance, after the Canterbury earthquake, NZ police reported a 53% rise in domestic violence. In the US, studies documented a four-fold increase following two disasters and an astounding 98 per cent increase in physical victimisation of women after Hurricane Katrina. In Australia, research strongly indicates a substantial rise in violence against women in the wake of the Black Saturday bushfires (Parkinson & Zara, 2013)

Similarly, emerging global data indicates an intensification of violence, particularly domestic violence, against women and girls since the outbreak of COVID-19. UN Women (2020) is calling this a ‘shadow pandemic’, and report that increased cases of domestic violence and demands for emergency shelter have been recorded in Canada, Germany, the UK, and the U.S. Reports of domestic violence in France have increased by 30% during lockdown, while calls to emergency helplines in Singapore recorded a 33% increase.

Within Victoria, a survey of practitioners responding to women experiencing violence during the current pandemic found an increase in both the severity and frequency of violence, as well as an increase in complexity of needs and even, disturbingly, new forms of intimate partner violence (Workplace Gender Equality Agency, 2020). There are over 500 calls being made each week to Victoria Police, a 94% increase to men’s services, and a 50% increase within the Magistrate’s Court (Women’s Health East, 2020).

As detailed by Parkinson & Zara (2013), ‘disaster itself can trigger an increase in the severity of existing violence and violence that is new. In existing situations, women’s preparation and evacuation strategies may be limited by concessions to controlling partners or, more directly, by lack of options… women may have no choice but to rely on abusive partners to keep themselves and their children housed and relatively safe.’ However, this research also highlighted that domestic violence is not recognised as a legitimate issue in the post-disaster reconstruction period. As we continue to wade through the immediate effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and its inevitable long-term effects, we must learn from the lessons of the past.

Returning to the iceberg analogy used earlier, research has long indicated that the statistics on violence against women only represent the tip of the issue. The majority of victim survivors never come to the attention of authorities, or even the service sector. The long-term effects of an abusive relationship reverberate through the lives of those affected, even many years after the relationship itself has ended (Evans, 2007). Yet they live with the impacts in silence. As we manage our response to these unprecedented times, we owe it to them to not do the same.

Evans, I.C. (2007). Battle-scars: Long-term effects of prior domestic violence. Centre for Women’s Studies and Gender Research, Monash University, Clayton.
Parkinson, D. & Zara, C. (2013). The hidden disaster: domestic violence in the aftermath of natural disaster. Australian Journal of Emergency Management, Volume 28 (2).
UN Office on Drugs and Crime (2018). Global Study on Homicide: gender-related killing of women and girls. Vienna.
UN Women (2020). The Shadow Pandemic: Violence Against Women and Girls and COVID-19. Available at: https://www.wgea.gov.au/topics/gendered-impact-of-covid-19
Women’s Health East (2020). ‘Towards a Gender Equal RecoveryCOVID-19 Factsheets. Available at: https://whe.org.au/blog/2020/06/towards-a-gender-equal-recovery-covid-19-factsheets/

Workplace Gender Equality Agency (2020). Gendered impact of COVID-19. Available at: https://www.wgea.gov.au/topics/gendered-impact-of-covid-19

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