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Violence against women - the shadow pandemic hitting the South Coast hard

December 11, 2020

By Joanna Warren

Maybe one day we won’t need an international day calling to end violence against women. Perhaps instead, in a not-too-distant future, we can celebrate a day of equality and peace, and kindness. But in our imperfect world, there is still much work to do.

Last month on the 25th November the Shoalhaven community came together to mark International Day of Elimination of Violence Against Women with an ‘Our Community Cares’ picnic. The UN inspired day was hosted by local groups who support women and human rights - Huskisson CWA, the Heart Centre, Bay and Basin Amnesty and Husky Yoga.

The usual SAHSSI 30 walk, like most events this year, was cancelled due to Covid restrictions. SAHSSI (Supported Accommodation and Homelessness Services Shoalhaven Illawarra) operates two women’s refuges in the Shoalhaven helping over 400 women each year. The SAHSSI walk has raised over $30,000 since it started in 2017, although the event is as much about raising community awareness on an issue often difficult to broach.

Living under the Covid restrictions has left women and families more vulnerable than ever. Even though unavoidable, the cancellation of so many community events has made many feel even more isolated and alone.

Our Community Cares picnic. Photo Amnesty International Bay & Basin Local Group.

The gathering in White Sands Park was an act of solidarity, strength and support, while also raising awareness and funds for the women’s refuge.

It is the simple things that are often the most powerful. A community comes from the everyday acts of kindness, connection and routine that builds a sense of safety and belonging. Community strengthens and nurtures us in these uncertain times.

Our collective response to the needs of women who are not safe in their own home defines us and, in a year, when many may have turned inwards for self-preservation, this was a celebration of the power of community to drive change.

“I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.” Audre Lorde

The colour orange has become a symbol of nonviolence and peace, a figure of hope towards a brighter future. This year’s theme for the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women was  ‘Orange the World: Fund, Respond, Prevent, Collect!’. As in previous years, it followed with 16 days of activism across the world, concluding just yesterday on International Human Rights Day.

The UN goal is to bridge funding gaps, ensuring essential services for survivors of violence during the Covid-19 crisis, and on improving life-saving services for women and girls.

The looming shadow pandemic

Since the outbreak of Covid-19, emerging data and reports from those on the front lines, have shown that all types of violence against women and girls, particularly domestic violence, has intensified.

As Covid-19 cases continue to strain health services, essential services, such as domestic violence shelters and helplines, have reached their limit. More needs to be done to prioritise addressing violence against women in our response and recovery efforts – in some countries, calls to helplines have increased five-fold.

Services across the South Coast have experienced a significant increase in women accessing support for domestic violence, leaving many agencies stretched beyond capacity. This pattern was reflected in the north, south and far south, with the geographic spread making access to services even more difficult in more remote areas.

Why we must eliminate violence against women

Violence against women and girls is one of the most widespread, persistent and devastating human rights violations in our world today. It remains unreported mainly due to the impunity, silence, stigma and shame surrounding it.

In general terms, it manifests itself in physical, sexual and psychological forms, encompassing:

  • intimate partner violence (battering, psychological abuse, marital rape, femicide)
  • sexual violence and harassment (rape, forced sexual acts, unwanted sexual advances, child sexual abuse, forced marriage, street harassment, stalking, cyber-harassment)
  • human trafficking (slavery, sexual exploitation)
  • female genital mutilation, and
  • child marriage.

The Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women issued by the UN General Assembly in 1993, defines violence against women as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.”

The adverse psychological, sexual and reproductive health consequences of violence affect women at all stages of their life. For example, educational disadvantages are the primary obstacle to universal schooling and education for girls, and it also restricts access to higher education and opportunities for women in the labour market.

While gender-based violence can happen to anyone, anywhere, some women and girls are particularly vulnerable. Those at the highest risk are young girls and older women, women who identify as lesbian, bisexual, transgender or intersex, migrants and refugees, indigenous women and ethnic minorities, or women and girls living with HIV and disabilities, and those living through humanitarian crises.

Fabieke-Graffiti Street Art, Bologna
Fabieke - Graffiti Street Art, Bologna

Violence against women continues to be an obstacle to achieving equality, development, peace as well as to the fulfilment of women and girls’ human rights. All in all, the promise of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) - to leave no one behind - cannot be fulfilled without putting an end to violence against women and girls.

 A few sobering domestic violence facts

Australians are often shocked when they hear our domestic violence statistics, that at least one woman in Australia dies every week at the hands of a current or ex-partner. Indigenous women face even greater risk and are three times more likely to be victims of domestic violence and 30 times more likely to be hospitalised than non-Indigenous women.

As populations become more fragmented in more remote regional communities, the situation becomes even starker with the worst rates in NSW in the Far West and Orana regions which experience this violence at 3.6 times the state average.

Even more shocking is the pattern of alcohol-fuelled behaviours inciting domestic violence incident increases of over 40 per cent during the football-finals rounds. The celebrations continue with horse racing carnivals, the extravagant Melbourne Cup, end of the year work parties, Christmas and new year celebrations, all adding family and financial stresses to the already stretched capacities of these struggling families. The further south and west we look, the more isolated and fragmented populations become, the fewer services offered with the measly funding available.

Add to those statistic that one in three Australian women have experienced physical violence since the age of 15, and one in five has experienced sexual violence. A further one in six Australian women has experienced physical or sexual violence by a current or former partner.

These acts, commonly take place behind closed doors inside the family home, are hidden, and so emotionally charged that a mentality of ‘don’t pry’, ‘it’s other people’s business’ and ‘I don’t want to get involved’ stop neighbourly intervention.

Violence against women is one of the most critical issues we need to be addressing right now as a nation. Repression of any group within a society, as we well know, leaves holes in our community that gape open like a festering open wound, slowly infecting and poisoning everything good and precious in life.

Violence against women and domestic violence are societies shame, a community shame. No one deserves or asks for violence, and the very nature of traumatic violence renders one instantly powerless to the repressor. 

We can all do better, be aware, call out violence when we hear or see it, let a neighbour know quietly that you are there should she ever need help or assistance. Good men can model acceptable behaviour that other men can follow. And for women and families suffering in silence, let them know to get in touch with SAHSSI for a chat on 4229 8523, there are many ways they can help.

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