When COVID-19 triggered unexpected lockdown restrictions last year, Adelaide woman Elsa Harris* suddenly found herself not only emotionally trapped in a violent relationship, but now physically confined to the clutches of her abuser.
Reaching out to support services in those unprecedented times, however, proved a frustrating exercise.
“I remember one thing that really stuck with me when the lockdown got announced,” Elsa says.
“I genuinely sat there and thought to myself ‘how am I going to make it out of this alive?’”
Elsa’s experience calls to the almost 10 per cent of Australian women in a relationship who experienced physical or sexual violence amidst the coronavirus crisis.
A survey conducted by the Australian Institute of Criminology revealed two thirds of women say the abuse worsened during the pandemic, with lockdown measures and heightened stress presenting as trigger factors.
When finally pushed to breaking point by her violent partner, emergency support seemed a million miles away for Elsa. She recalls going for a drive to somewhere she knew her abuser would not find her and calling the first number that popped up when she googled ‘domestic violence women’s services’.
“They told me I could come into one of their shelters, but I would have to stay for two weeks… otherwise all they could do was file a police report for [me],” she recalls.
“I remember sitting there and thinking ‘why is this it?’”
Suzanne Hopman, CEO of award-winning charity Dignity, says many women chose not to come forward and seek help because of the possible repercussions they could face.
“There was, we think, an escalation of domestic violence behind closed doors,” she says.
With restrictions set in place to stop the spread of coronavirus, Mrs Hopman says it was difficult to accommodate people who sought refuge whilst still protecting the health and safety of workers at Dignity’s crisis shelters.
“[We were] having to reduce some of that face to face service but also reduce the number of people in shared accommodation,” she adds.
In July last year, the government released a $150 million package to support Australians experiencing domestic, family and sexual violence as a fallout of the coronavirus. But, support services remain overwhelmed with the influx of women seeking refuge from abusive relationships.
In a month in which the violent murder of Kelly Wilkinson, allegedly by her partner, and the domestic violence murder suicide of a dad and his toddler daughter have dominated the news, the plea for further action and funding in the sector grows more urgent.
Current statistics show one woman a week dies as a result of domestic violence.
Figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show a third of all sexual assaults and murders in 2019 occurred in a domestic situation.
Despite a year of emotional and physical trauma at the hands of her partner and an inability to access effective crisis support, Elsa counts herself as one of the lucky ones.
“I feel like my experience wasn’t as bad as other people’s… and I still didn’t think I was going to come out of it alive,” she says. “I guess that is how some women end up dead at the end of it all.”
* Pseudonym used for privacy reasons
In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, family or domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au. Another helpful resource maybe Sexual Assault Counselling Australia: 1800 211 028. In an emergency, call 000.
Main image by Fort George G. Meade Public Affairs Office/Flickr.