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Natasha Stott Despoja says domestic violence against women during COVID-19 is ‘the shadow pandemic’

Tragedy: Brisbane’s Hannah Clarke and her three young children were murdered on a street in Camp Hill on February 19. Photo: Facebook

WHEN Natasha Stott Despoja wrote a book last year about family violence, she described it as “a national emergency”.

Now she has spoke out again about “the body count, the slaughter in our suburbs” – domestic violence that destroys too many Australian households, fractures entire communities, and has spiked during COVID-19.

“I described it as a national emergency and it still is,” the former Senator and chair of Our Watch told the National Press Club in Canberra on August 19.

“Every week in the year a woman dies violently… we are up to the 34th week of this year and 34 women have been murdered.”

Most disturbing for all Australians are surveys that show that since the COVID-19 began, there has been a frightening upswing in domestic violence, that Ms Stott Despoja described as “the shadow pandemic”.

She cited figures from Australian service providers and researchers showing a rise in family violence, including first-time family violence, and coercive behaviour.

A survey of 15,000 Australian women found nearly one in 20 suffered physical or sexual violence from their current or former partner between March and May.

Two-thirds of these said it was the first time.

Nearly one in eight reported experiencing at least one form of emotionally abusive, harassing or controlling behaviour.

The pandemic has exacerbated inequalities in the home and in the workforce.

“There’s been more violence in more Australian homes. The severity of violence has increased, and COVID is actually being weaponised in the home as a tool of abuse,” Ms Stott Despoja said.

In Queensland, frontline domestic violence workers have seen a 70 per cent escalation in violence experienced by women in May, Ms Stott Despoja said.

“There is no doubt that stress-related factors in this pandemic, in this current situation, including financial pressures, potential family disruption, social isolation, disruption to people’s usual personal and social roles, that can compound and exacerbate the underlying conditions that lead to violence against women,” she said.

“While these stress factors can increase the severity and frequency of violence, they do not in themselves cause it, and they certainly don’t excuse it … there is no excuse for abuse.”

As the inaugural chair of Our Watch, a group that campaigns to prevent violence against women and their children in Australia, Ms Stott Despoja addressed the National Press Club on a chilling anniversary – six months to the day since Hannah Clarke and her three children were murdered on a street in the leafy Brisbane suburb of Camp Hill.

The 31-year-old mother and her young children – Aaliyah, Laianah and Trey – were doused in petrol and set alight by Ms Clarke’s estranged husband, Rowan Baxter, on February 19.

At the time of the murder, Baxter was due to appear in court on domestic violence charges after he allegedly assaulted Ms Clarke and kidnapped their daughter on Boxing Day, 2019.

The murders sparked a national debate after reports emerged that Baxter had a history of violence and had been subjected to a domestic violence order as well as child custody orders as recently as the month of the murders.

Remembered: Lloyd and Suzanne Clarke, (centre at front) parents of Hannah Clarke, attend a vigil to remember murdered mother, Hannah Clarke and her three children.

A domestic violence order is broken 84 times a day in Queensland on average, and can be a precursor to more serious violence.

The six-month anniversary of the Hannah Clarke tragedy has renewed calls from domestic violence prevention groups for the government to introduce tougher laws to clamp down on repeated DVO breaches and coercive or controlling behaviour.

The state government is yet to introduce any new domestic violence legislation to prevent a similar tragedy.

Ms Stott Despoja said reports showed coercive control was evident in most partner homicides, and “surely this has to be considered as one of the policy reforms”.

“I don’t underestimate the difficulties in legislating this issue (because of definition)… people have argued what is the line between unpleasant behaviour and what is psychological abuse,” she said.

“These are difficult complex issues, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be grappling with it.”

When it comes to domestic violence, Ms Stott Despoja said Australia’s response and recovery from the pandemic, represented an opportunity for a “transformative agenda”.

“I know that many of you are sickened by the stories and statistics, the body count, the slaughter in the suburbs, and I know we cannot go on like this,” she said.

“The best way to end the violence is to stop it from happening in the first place.”

She called on businesses, government groups and the community to work together to enact systemic change.

In particular she urged the Federal Coalition to consider the impacts on women and children in preparing the October 6 budget.

“We need to apply a gender lens and analysis to policy and budget decisions,” she said.

She said the government’s targeted response so far has gone to male-dominated industries like construction.

The free childcare welcomed by so many women suddenly looking for work ended after three months and the sector’s workers were the first to be pulled off JobKeeper.

“Of course infrastructure and a range of other things are important in order to get this country back on its feet,” she said.

“But gender lens – are we looking at the industries that have been hit hardest?

“Are we looking at those feminised or female-dominated sectors that have proved so valuable to dealing with this pandemic and yet are not being supported?

“The national response and recovery from the pandemic can strengthen women’s security, independence, economic participation and decision-making in public life.”

“We can actually use this as an opportunity for a transformative agenda when this comes to our economy and society.”

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