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Experts warn of domestic violence 'second wave' as coronavirus financial support winds back

Updated: May 2

Zola (not her real name) endured three decades of domestic abuse at the hands of her husband.

But at the end of last year, she had enough. With only the clothes on the back, she fled her overseas home for the country where she was born; Australia.

"I come from a culture where 'women don't complain, you put up with it', so I did," Zola said.

"I was constantly being told 'you're not good enough', 'you'll amount to nothing', 'all you're good for is raising kids'."

The decision to seek refuge was not easy — Zola arrived with no job and no money.

"I left with absolutely nothing. I was terrified."

Workers at the Women's Legal Service in Adelaide are preparing for a second wave of calls for help.

She couch surfed with friends and family for months, surviving on the Newstart Allowance of about $35 a day.

"I was living off food vouchers and food packages. I had nothing," she said.

Things changed when the nation went into lockdown. The Newstart payment became JobSeeker, and the Federal Government temporarily boosted payments by $550 a fortnight.

Zola used that money for safe housing, putting fresh food on the table, and filling her car up with petrol for the first time this year.

"That payment was such a huge help … It was just a relief to be able to afford basic things," she said.

"For the first time I was able to buy fresh fruit. I had never been able to buy fresh fruit before."

Services struggling with hike in demand

While Zola was able to escape her husband before COVID-19, experts warn the pandemic is likely to have worsened the nation's domestic abuse problem.

The Australian Institute of Criminology surveyed 15,000 women in May, finding 8.2 per cent of women who lived with a partner had experienced physical violence in the preceding three months.

SA Women's Legal Service had to turn away 450 calls from women in need during May.

The survey found 2.2 per cent of women had experienced sexual violence.

Alarmingly, the survey found two-thirds of those women reported this was the first occasion they had experienced violence at the hands of that partner, or that the frequency and severity of the violence had increased during the pandemic.

The statistics align with the experience of South Australia's Women's Legal Service, which says it has been under "considerable pressure".

Chief executive Zita Ngor said the organisation was forced to turn away 450 calls from women during the month of May.

Women's Legal Service CEO Zita Ngor says there have been more "severe" and "frequent" domestic violence cases during the pandemic.

"We're dealing with cases where the severity of family violence that has been alleged is of a far greater level," Ms Ngor said.

"The stories we're hearing about what has happened to them [the women], and their children is really heart-rending."

Financial support 'crucial' for women and children

University of Melbourne social work professor Cathy Humphreys said additional payments from the Australian Government, including JobKeeper and JobSeeker, had been "absolutely crucial" in helping women and children escape the "shadow pandemic" of domestic violence.

"Women without work, who are economically dependent on their abusive partner, are at increased risk of being trapped in family violence," Ms Humphreys said.

"Few women are prepared to plunge themselves and their children into homelessness and poverty.

"It's a major reason why many women only leave when the violence and abuse has escalated to the point where they fear for their lives, or the safety and wellbeing of their children are at risk."

While those payments may have been crucial for some women, they will not last forever.

Ms Ngor says the Women's Legal Service has been overwhelmed during the pandemic.

For Zola, the reduction of her payment by $300 a fortnight was significant.

"I suddenly realised I didn't have money to pay for my medication," she said.

"I had to postpone buying my anti-depressants because I couldn't afford it.

"I felt like I was suffocating because I thought to myself, how am I going to survive?"

For now, survival comes in the form of charity.

BaptistCare has granted Zola a no-interest loan to buy a fridge, and a laptop to look for work.

Payments 'effectively DV prevention strategies'

"More often than not women experiencing domestic violence don't have a lot of time to think through the financial implications of leaving an unhealthy relationship, and, for many, not knowing if they can afford to restart their lives is a big barrier to leaving," BaptistCare acting general manager Elizabeth Hunks said.

"Women who may have left a situation with almost nothing, should have access to fair finances to help them get back on their feet."

Domestic violence researchers fear the unwinding of some of the Government's pandemic-induced support may have the opposite effect.

Professor Humphreys is worried it might force more women back into abusive homes.

Legal services and advocates say more funding is needed when JobKeeper winds back.

"Maintaining and extending JobKeeper and JobSeeker payments should be a critical policy response because both payments are effectively domestic violence prevention strategies," she said.

At the Women's Legal Service, Ms Ngor is preparing for a second wave of calls for help.

"What we're concerned about is when those Government safety nets are pulled back, we're going to see a lot lot more domestic and family violence as communities are put under pressure," she said.

By: Kelly Hughes

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