Services providing protection and shelter for victims of domestic violence fear that a prolonged COVID-19 shutdown will expose women and families to greater domestic danger.
Under present conditions families are urged to self-isolate and forced to spend more time together in the same house and those at risk of family violence are being forced even closer to their abusers, bringing about a marked increase in domestic and family abuse.
Women's Safety NSW says front line services have dealt with a 40 per cent lockdown since restrictions were imposed across Australia.
In the light of this, family violence services that provide shelter, support and counselling for victims of domestic violence and homeless women are alerting the community and those in danger that their services are open despite the lockdown.
Women's Safety NSW CEO Hayley Foster said that while there was a clear increase in need, she was worried about a decrease in calls to services because it reinforced the fear that victims were struggling to find the opportunity to access services.
Perpetrators are using unemployment and financial stress as an excuse to justify their behaviours. Our message is there is no excuse. Violence is always a deliberate choice.Hayley Foster
"This is a time when we know victims are at higher risk because the conditions are conducive to that, but its harder than ever for victims to reach out," Ms Foster said.
"Victims are making the judgement call that it's not a good time to seek help and try to escape their situation."
Ms Foster said that domestic violence is characterised by coercive control and the monitoring and surveillance of the target of abuse.
"These are the perfect conditions for abusers to have a stranglehold on their victims," she said.
"Even in normal circumstances a feature of domestic violence is that the abuser tends to isolate their victims from family and friends. And now, because of COVID-19 the few connections they do have are severed."
While unemployment, stress and financial anxiety are factors that exacerbate domestic violence, Ms Foster said research had demonstrated that gender expectations around roles, stereotypes, decision-making, levels of independence were the main drivers of domestic violence.
"Perpetrators are using unemployment and financial stress as an excuse to justify their behaviours.
"Our message is there is no excuse. Violence is always a deliberate choice.
"Perpetrators are not using violence against just anyone, it's always a deliberate choice and targeted against the person they are trying to exert control over."
In Victoria, the government has launched Operation Ribbon, which will see officers checking on known family violence perpetrators to make sure they're complying with any conditions placed on them by the courts and that the services that support victims remain open.
In NSW, Women's Community Shelters CEO Annabelle Daniel said the situation made people vulnerable in unprecedented ways.
"Young women laid-off their jobs, not at university, are being forced by economic factors to return to an abusive environment, or spend a lot more time among abusive family members.
"All the evidence is that we can expect that the pressure of social isolation, the economic destabilisation that's occurred, will actually give perpetrators of domestic violence additional opportunities to exercise control and power and to be violent."
Ms Daniel said perpetrators of domestic violence in the home were not always obvious or easily detected.
"Often they work to establish a very positive image of their family life.
"They can become very proficient at masking the situation, using social media and such to create the impression of a loving and safe family," she said.
"The COVID-19 situation provides the opportunity for an abusive person to increase their level of domination due to the increased extent and time they have to control others."
Hornsby-Kur-in-gai Women's Shelter CEO Louise McCann said she wanted to make it very clear shelters were open and that strict precautions were in place to keep women and staff safe in the current environment.
"We are worried about women in danger not having the capacity to reach out and call us," Ms McCann said.
"At these times of heightened tensions in the family home there is the potential for more domestic violence, and then when you can't easily leave the home, there is a difficulty in making contact with appropriate services to get help," she said.
"Because people are not getting out, they are not seeing friends and family who might recognise the signs that there is violence or abuse in the home.
"Historically we know people are in danger during periods of greater hardship, and where people are out of their normal routines."
Ms McCann said it was important in this time to creatively about providing support for abuse victims.
"At a time when people can't leave the house, we need to focus more on partnering with health services, general practice clinics, specialist clinics and pharmacists who are still engaging with the community, so that they have the awareness to reach out when they identify signs of violence."
If you or someone you know is affected by family violence or sexual assault, call 1800RESPECTon 1800 737 732.
The Sexual Assault Crisis Line is available on 1800 806 292.TheMen's Referral Serviceprovides counselling to men who carry out family violence, on 1300 766 491.