Health sector must step up to challenge of Shadow Pandemic

You can watch the webinar via link in story
2 December 2020 |

A panel of family violence experts and survivor advocates have urged health professionals to be observant and look for the signs of family violence when interacting with patients.

In April 2020, when COVID-19 lockdowns commenced in many parts of the globe, the United Nations warned of a growing “shadow pandemic of violence against women”.

Since then, rates of family violence incidents and calls to helplines have increased, including in Victoria.

Yesterday, Royal Women’s Hospital Board Director and former Australian of the Year, Rosie Batty AO; CEO Dr Matthews; Director of the Centre for Family Violence Prevention Professor Kelsey Hegarty; Director of Prevention of Violence Against Women Jean Cameron; and Survivor Advocate Fiona discussed the issue in a webinar streamed to hundreds of health professionals across the state.

Victorian Minister for Prevention of Family Violence, Minister for Women and the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Gabrielle Williams MP opened the online event.

“The role that hospitals play in responding to family violence really is critical. We can’t respond adequately without our hospital system playing a central role in that response, and helping us to detect family violence wherever it exists. It’s a whole of community issue and one where we need everyone being vigilant and alert,” she told the audience.

Professor Hegarty said three key enablers – lockdown rules including restricted movement, loss of income and elevated levels of stress – had led to increasing rates of family violence, but “the true nature [and extent] may not be clear until next year”.

Data from the Victorian Crime Statistics Agency reveals family violence incidents recorded by police between 1 April and 30 June (the latest data available) was up 11.5 per cent to 21,920 incidents. Breaches of family violence orders increased 17 per cent to 12,669. And presentations to emergency departments for family violence was up almost 20 per cent to 363 – almost 4 a day. Data covering the period of Stage 4 restrictions is yet to be released.

Ms Batty said health professionals had a powerful role to play in early detection.

“Early intervention can change a trajectory. It can make a huge difference to someone’s life and the potential of what may or may not happen,” she said.

“It’s about being prepared to notice what is that client’s presentation telling you? Intuitively you will know. And it starts with that decision you make to either ignore – because it seems too hard – or actually have the confidence to know that you can be part of changing somebody’s life.”

Ms Cameron said she hoped the resourcing that had been dedicated to the public health response to COVID-19 could flow to fighting family violence.

“Perhaps in these days of ‘double donuts’ we should start to think about whether we could achieve double donut results for women and children affected by family violence,” she said.

“We know family violence and violence against women in all its forms is serious, it’s prevalent, and it’s preventable… If we could apply the COVID-19 pandemic approach to family violence and all forms of violence against women, imagine what we could achieve.”

Survivor Advocate Fiona, who works with WEAVERs – a co-collaborative panel of survivors working with family violence researchers at the University of Melbourne – shared her experience of 28 years in an abusive marriage.

“Domestic violence is not about what suburb you live in, what car you drive, how much money you earn... It’s about power and control,” she said.

“The most important thing I can tell you – listen, understand, and validate. Never ever underestimate the impact you can have for a woman seeking help.”

Watch the webinar below.

Read about the Strengthening Hospital Responses to Family Violence initiative.

If you or someone you know is affected by family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or Safe Steps on 1800 015 188. In an emergency, call 000.

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