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More men seeking help to stop abuse in lockdown

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An unexpected rise in men phoning a national domestic abuse hotline during the COVID-19 lockdown brings a glimmer of hope.

No one could accuse Sarah Wendt of Pollyannaism. Years on the frontlines of the battle against domestic abuse have left her with a tough pragmatism and no illusions about the destruction that is brought to so many women’s and children’s lives.

And yet the COVID-19 lockdown has given her cause for cautious optimism.

A 34 per cent increase in calls to the national MensLine – a dedicated support service to help men cope with stress and anxiety, and how they affect their behaviour towards partners and children – is a positive development, she says.

“We’ve been waiting for a long time for perpetrators of abuse to take more personal responsibility,” she says. “So this is an interesting shift and maybe the COVID-19 crisis has given us the opportunity to actually enable that shift.”

But Wendt, a professor in social work at Flinders University, is less sanguine about the other stand-out statistic in domestic abuse during the lockdown: the failure to see the expected rise in calls from victims themselves.

“Our initial assumptions were, when people are living all in the one house in quarantine, that could create much more pressure for families and exacerbate domestic and family violence. But the narrative that we’re seeing is that there hasn’t really been a significant increase in calls from women to [the] 1-800-RESPECT number, or to police,” she says.

The experiences of women in isolation is familiar territory for Wendt, whose PhD looked at the special needs of domestic abuse victims in a rural setting, and whose work expanded to embrace women isolated for other reasons, such as culture, religion, migrant status or, now, quarantine.

“I don’t think that this is because domestic and family violence has gone away,” she says. “I think women are weighing up whether it is better to live through this and then seek help, instead of trying to leave now, when there is so much uncertainty.”

Increased surveillance by violent partners may also mean it is just harder to seek help undetected.

“But women are exceptionally good at surviving domestic and family violence for long periods of time. They often understand the triggers of their partners and placate for self-protection, protection of their children.

“So I think women are drawing on those skills and strengths, to actually survive in this really unique time.”

But it is the need for men – and the perpetrators of domestic abyse are overwhelmingly men – to develop their own skills at managing their anger and violence that has been Wendt’s recent focus, and her work has begun to kick some goals.

Together with the independent research group Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (ANROWS), Wendt has been looking at how to get men to take more personal responsibility for their behaviour. That has helped ANROWS to work with the state and federal governments to roll out a range of support services during the current crisis.

In May, the federal government announced a national campaign called Help is Here, as part of the $150 million Domestic Violence Support Package announced by the Prime Minister in early April.

I don’t think that this is because domestic and family violence has gone away,” she says. “I think women are weighing up whether it is better to live through this and then seek help, instead of trying to leave now, when there is so much uncertainty.”

But where in the past the emphasis has all been on how women can call for help, the message from Help is Here also targeted men to let them know there was someone to talk to before a situation escalates.

“Men normally blow off steam by catching up with their mates at the pub and they can’t do those sorts of things now,” says Samantha Fredericks, the chief executive of On the Line, the independent social health organisation that provides the MensLine counselling services.

“So in some instances it can become more of a pressure-cooker environment. We want men to understand they can reach out for help before a situation escalates.”

With the easing of the lockdown, women’s safety services are bracing for an upsurge in calls from women to its helplines.

“That’s where the increase might actually happen, because then women will have much more opportunity, or choice, [which] they haven’t necessarily had under such severe restrictions,” says Wendt.

But she hopes the experience of the lockdown could provide an opportunity to revisit how we approach family and domestic abuse.

“We have tolerated physical isolation and restrictions to protect our health. Our leaders have guided us to mobilise the resources to protect Australians,” she says. “And so, as a society, we thought it was acceptable that police resources could be used to surveil our civilians for the common good.

“If we were to see the number of women who are murdered or harmed and traumatised due to domestic violence as an epidemic, might we not tolerate more monitoring and surveillance of domestic violence perpetrators, who are significantly dangerous and a high risk?”

Women’s Safety Services SA
1800 800 098
womenssafetyservices.com.au

1800RESPECT (1800 737 732)
24-hour national sexual assault, family and domestic violence counselling line

MensLine 1300 78 99 78
at any time or visit
mensline.org.au

Bill Condie

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Bill Condie has been a journalist for more than 30 years, working as a writer and editor in Europe, Asia and Australia for newspapers including The GuardianThe Observer and The Times. He is a former publisher of Cosmos magazine.

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