Covid-19 saw a dramatic rise in domestic violence and abuse, with a 20% increase in calls for help to the Manly Warringah Women’s Resource Centre. The brand new safe house, which opened in July, is now operating at 100% capacity with more than 70 women and children living there. Almost all of these women and children experienced coercive control and abuse! Samantha Buckingham explains the situation for women on the North Shore, and how you can help by signing up for the Walk For Women & Children event this November.
The worst part of domestic abuse is not what you might think. It’s not the physical violence – the black eye, broken nose or bruised ribs from having been thrown down the stairs, like my friend Alaina experienced in the first year of her marriage.
Many of our clients at The Manly Warringah Women’s Resource Centre, close to 80% of them, have reported it’s the psychological abuse – ranging from surveillance (following, tracking and tapping phones and emails) and manipulation, controlling their appearance and access to money, the gradual isolation from friends and family, degrading put downs or acts, humiliation and threats, that is the worst. These insidious behaviours pervade their daily life, gradually chipping away at a person’s sense of self, safety and independence, most of them reporting they feel they are being held hostage, constantly walking on egg shells or being “smothered alive”.
Professor Evan Stark, a sociologist, developed the concept of coercive control, has defined it a “pattern of domination that includes tactics to isolate, degrade, exploit and control” victims, “as well as to frighten them or hurt them physically”. Starks research found that 60 – 80% of women who seek help for abuse have experienced it, and that the level of control in such relationships is a predictor of severe and fatal violence.
Sadly, coercive control is not a crime in Australia, and unless a perpetrator has stalked or physically assaulted someone, damaged property or breached an intervention order, they are unlikely to face charges. Countries like England and Wales have led the way making it a crime to commit coercive, controlling behaviours against an intimate partner, introducing groundbreaking legislation known as the Domestic Violence Act which allows physical, psychological and coercive behaviours to be prosecuted at once.
A Royal Commission into family Violence in Victoria in 2016 heard one victim testify that she completely lost who she was, was “unable to think straight or even write out a shopping list”, stating her mind was so tormented and she worried herself sick that she would say or do something wrong.
Oddly, many women experiencing domestic abuse either don’t recognise it as abuse or don’t report it, not wanting the perpetrator to be punished. They fear it could result in a loss of financial support, disrupt their children’s relationship with their Father, or escalate his use of violence. Female victims also fear being misidentified as the perpetrator of abuse by Police, who focus on gathering evidence of physical violence offences and taking an incident based approach. We have seen women charged with assaults after they have lashed out only due to having endured periods of intense coercive control.
The victim is always worn down, exhausted and weakened by the abuse, leaving them with little energy to act, think or regulate their behaviour and the thought of having to uproot their lives, flee the family home and hide the kids is often too daunting to face.
Intimate, Invisible Terrorism
Kimberly, a previous client of ours from the lower North Shore, shared with me how she felt it was easier to put up with the abuse than to do something about it. Despite the constant intimidation and surveillance, her focus was solely on protecting her children from witnessing it rather than getting them all out of it.
I believed the kids needed their father. I didn’t want to wreck our family – Kimberly, North Shore Mum
She told me how she was routinely abused and degraded, threatened that if she ever left he would kill her or harm the family pets. It then developed into physical assaults usually after he had been drinking, and eventually ended up in a strangulation event. She described it as “intimate terrorism” that no-one suspected. The point here is that domestic violence almost always starts with coercive control, and it often goes unreported, remains unnoticed yet always escalates.
The coercive behaviour can be a warning sign for women. Research shows us that, for children, being in a coercively controlling household can result in the same long term harm as direct physical or sexual abuse. Victims experiencing this can apply for a protection order, however it is often not enough.
For children witnessing and living with coercive control, it has the same lasting affect as experiencing physical and sexual abuse
Domestic violence during the Covid-19 pandemic
The problem throughout the Covid-19 pandemic was that victims could not escape the perpetrator, and were stuck at home with rising tensions. Children became exposed.
As restrictions began to ease, our phones started ringing with women desperate to escape their situation. In fact, we received 20% more calls between April – June reporting a greater level of violence than what we would usually hear about.
Our refuges began to fill, and we opened a new safe house in Manly mid way through July. It is now full with over 32 children and 30 women living with us.
One Mother with 4 children under 10 arrived in her 2019 model X5 BMW wearing her Chanel sunglasses to help hide her teary eyes, with only one carry bag between the 5 of them. She had to park her car in another suburb and can’t drive it now.
Donations make a real difference
Thanks to donations from the local community, we have ample nappies for the twins, we have reclothed the family in new clothes to restore their dignity, have engaged counselling, provided school holiday activities for the kids, sent Mum for a massage and a coffee and we have a plan to move the family into transitional housing before Christmas. There are many more families in a similar situation currently living with us, people you would never suspect, families in your school, your neighbourhood and your community. Women who, prior to the pandemic, were dining out in fancy restaurants and attending work functions with their husbands, are now living in a refuge.
About Manly Warringah Women’s Resource Centre
The Manly Warringah Women’s Resource Centre is a not for profit organisation supporting women and children escaping domestic violence and abuse. They provide crisis accommodation and support services (like counselling, legal advice clinics, advocacy family support) on the North Shore and Northern Beaches of Sydney for ‘at risk’ women and children.
They have a group home refuge on the North Shore, plus six units and a new ‘pop up’ Safe House on the Northern Beaches in response to COVID-19 and the direct increase in mental health issues and intimate partner violence. They also have transitioning houses for women who are ready to slowly take the steps to move on. Find out more about the Safe Houses here.
How you can help women and children escaping domestic violence
We are asking the community to step up and Walk for Women and Children this November. Every step you take will help to raise vital funds to get these families back on their feet and keep them safe. We need it more than ever this year.
Walk for Women & Children
Choose to walk, run, ride, swim or dance throughout the month of November and know you are doing it for a great cause! Think about taking the stairs instead of the lift, walking instead of catching the bus, going out for an early walk or jog, swimming laps at lunch time or riding a set number of kilometres. The choice is yours…
North Shore Mums has created a team, and everyone is invited to join! Together, we can be stronger and have an even bigger impact. By joining our team, we will be able to see the direct results of amazing North Shore Mums stepping out and raising funds for victims of domestic violence during November.
All you need to do is:
- Register and join the North Shore Mums team
- Set your goal and make a plan of how you will achieve it &
- Get sponsors
Registration is $25 (and you can opt to make an additional donation when you sign up), and you can also raise funds by getting sponsors!
So what are you waiting for? Get moving! Let’s make a real difference to women and children who need these support services.
If you’re experiencing domestic violence or abuse, or know someone who is, please don’t hesitate to contact The Manly Warringah Women’s Resource Centre on 9971 4499. Their case workers will step in and make the suitable arrangements to ensure their safety and support. Otherwise, please phone 1800RESPECT.
More on domestic violence
- ‘Walk for Women & Children’: Step up for victims of domestic violence
- Feeling overwhelmed by the COVID-19 pandemic? Free mental health support services
- The Parenting Couch Podcast Episode #4 & #5: Mel Wojtas
- Business Spotlight: Rose Smith, Philotimo Freestyle Jujitsu
- ‘Fear was my constant companion’: Growing up with domestic violence