The past twelve months have confronted humanity in ways previously thought unimaginable, as the emergence and persistence of COVID-19 has brought the ordinary existence and workings of the world to a sharp halt, having an immeasurable impact on individuals globally. Despite the chaos and uncertainty that has pervaded much of the past year, a source of comfort and stability for many, and for myself included, has been the ability to retreat into my home. Home, and those within, has provided a source of assurance in a time when there has been not much else to be assured about. It has also granted me a sense of security, with the threshold of my home acting as some form of protection from the unpredictability of the world outside. However, it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge that this instilled sense of safety is not a universal experience, but rather a privilege— because for so many, the COVID-19 crisis and the subsequent lockdowns have been a stark reminder that home is not always the safest place to be.
The relationship between social crises and domestic violence
Research has demonstrated that societal crises have gendered impacts that disproportionately affect women and girls, who are 14 times more likely to die in a natural disaster on a global scale. Importantly, it is not only the direct consequences of such an event that pose a threat to women, but the emotional environments that they create. Large-scale events inevitably exacerbate feelings of vulnerability, which studies have shown can have a particularly detrimental effect on traditional conceptions of masculinity. It has been demonstrated that internalised feelings of weakness and emasculation in the face of unconquerable threats can lead to some men resorting to a combination of drugs, alcohol and aggression. Within such a setting, the safety of women can become compromised by 'unchecked male violence and aggression'.
It has become increasingly clear that a devastating side effect of these cataclysmic events is that they have the ability to create the conditions which exacerbate incidents of domestic violence. This was evident in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, where studies found there was a 98% increase in physical violence towards women. A similar pattern was demonstrated in New Zealand following the 2010 Canterbury earthquake with a reported 53% increase in police callouts relating to domestic violence incidents in that period of time. Closer to home, the first study conducted regarding the relationship between the Black Saturday bushfires and domestic violence revealed that the majority of women involved in the research felt increasingly frightened by their partner following this event. For some women, this fear had not before been felt, and for those who had previously experienced such violence, this reportedly increased following the fires. Throughout this field of research, commonly cited reasons for this increase in violence towards women include the environmental stressors that these environments create, compounded by emotional pressures.
Domestic violence in the context of COVID-19
It doesn’t take much in light of the above studies to then look at the current climate and conclude that the COVID-19 crisis has compromised women’s safety and security. On a global scale, data released by the United Nations Population fund predicts that for every three months that lockdowns continue, an additional 15 million cases of domestic violence will occur worldwide. These revelations have led the Executive Director of UN Women, Phuzmile Mlambo-Ngcuke, to describe violence against women as the ‘shadow pandemic’. In Australia, on average, every week one woman is murdered by her current or former partner, and in 2015 family violence was declared a national emergency. These statistics, compounded with the abovementioned global data, lead to a terrifying prediction.
Whilst not a natural disaster per se, the global pandemic has nonetheless drastically impacted individual lives around the globe in unparalleled ways, and in this sense, research pertaining to natural disasters and the prevalence of domestic violence remains relevant to this context. The economic distress often associated with crises and its impact on domestic violence has been studied before, and with one in three houses reported to have been financially worse off by March 2020 due to COVID-19, the evidence for this relationship in the pandemic context has grown. Further, by the middle of 2020 it was becoming increasingly clear to frontline workers that the stay-at-home orders characterising much of the pandemic were enabling domestic violence to manifest in very particular ways.
Never before have we seen citizens of cities around the world being ordered by their governments to remain at home, and in endeavouring to combat and suppress the virus, stay-at-home orders inadvertently have had the effect of trapping many victims at home with their abuser. Whilst the Victorian government specified an exception to this order for seeking help or fleeing from domestic violence, the stark reality for many women with no-where or no-one to go to means this is simply not an option. Essentially, the frightening consequence of COVID-19 restrictions is that it has left victims isolated from people and places of support; a tactic of coercive control commonly employed by perpetrators.
Research conducted by Monash University highlights that Victorian frontline practitioners have reported an increase in both the severity and frequency of forms of violence against women, as well as the number of first-time occurrences of family violence during the pandemic. Specifically, practitioners have revealed that perpetrators have been using both the threat of the virus and government regulations as a means to restrict women’s movements and isolate them from support networks. In some cases, the stay-at-home orders have been used as a justification by perpetrators to pressure women into residing into the same home, thereby entrapping them. This heightened surveillance and increased isolation from the outside world has also resulted in women being faced with additional barriers in seeking help, and for many, due to the ubiquitous threat of an abuser, escape is no longer an option. Particularly, domestic violence helpline services have reported an increase in late night calls when an abuser is asleep, and an increase in the use of chat functions due to the ever-present fear of an abuser listening. These disclosures elucidate that COVID-19 restrictions have created an environment which enables the perpetuation of existing forms of abuse, as well as the manifestation of new ones. A frightening inference that can be drawn here is that for some women, these conditions have silenced their calls for help.
2020 was a year like no other: for me, like many others, despite the uneasiness and feelings of anxiety induced by the uncertainty of the outside world, it was marked by moments of comfort and support from those who make up my world, inside my home. I can’t imagine the fear of feeling threatened within the walls that authorities reiterated could serve to protect us, and it is important to recognise that the romanticised representations of the safety of our homes have not been the reality for all. For far too many women, the words 'stay home, stay safe' must have been the hardest thing to hear.
 Danielle Bozin, Rowena Maguire and Gary Mortimer, ‘Domestic Violence will spike in the bushfire aftermath, and governments can no longer ignore it’, The Conversation (online, November 18 2019) <https://theconversation.com/domestic-violence-will-spike-in-the-bushfire-aftermath-and-governments-can-no-longer-ignore-it-127018>.
Debra Parkinson, ‘Women’s experience of violence in the aftermath of the Black Saturday bushfires’ (PhD Thesis, Monash University, 2014), 58.
 Ibid, quoting J Williams, ‘Responding to women in emergencies and disasters: the role of community services development’, (1994) 8(4) The Macedon Digest 32, 34.
Debra Parkinson and Claire Zara, ‘The hidden disaster: domestic violence in the aftermath of natural disaster’ (2013) 28(2) Australian Journal of Emergency Management 28, 28.
 Parkinson (n 2) 126.
 Responding to the ‘Shadow Pandemic’ (Monash Gender and Family Violence Prevention Centre, Monash University, June 2020) 6.
 Ibid, 7.
 DV Connect, ‘Domestic Violence Statistics’ <https://www.dvconnect.org/about/domestic-violence-statistics/>.
 Responding to the ‘Shadow Pandemic’ (n 8) 7.
 Anthony Morgan and Hayley Boxall, ‘Social isolation, time spent at home, financial stress and domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic’ (Australian Institute of Criminology, October 2020) 2.
 Kate Fitz-Gibbon et al, Submission to the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, COVID-19 and the increase of domestic violence against women (30 June 2020) 7.
 Responding to the Shadow Pandemic (n 8) 11.
 Kate Fitz-Gibbon et al (n 13) 8.
Image: Monash Lens
Lily Polak is a first year Juris Doctor student and has previously completed a Bachelor of Arts. Lily is particularly interested in human rights and social justice, and hopes to pursue a career where she can help to protect the rights of vulnerable members of society.