Opinion

Natasha Stott Despoja
After the virus: A plan for women

If ever we needed a gender lens on government policy, it is now.

The impact of Covid-19 is being felt severely by many, but it is affecting women and men differently. This pandemic has highlighted, and exacerbated, existing inequalities in the home and the workforce.

As in many other countries, the immediate economic impacts have disproportionately affected women in Australia, with female-dominated industries hardest hit. At the same time, during the pandemic, women have been performing significantly more of the unpaid caring and domestic work.

Roopa Dhatt, of Women in Global Health, has said women are the “shock absorbers” of Covid-19, due to the specific and disproportionate social and economic impacts they are experiencing.

One of the most disturbing consequences of the crisis globally has been the increase in the rates and severity of violence against women, leading the United Nations to declare violence against women during Covid-19 the “shadow pandemic”.

Long before Covid-19, Australia faced a national emergency in relation to violence against women and children. Police were dealing with a domestic violence incident 657 times a day, approximately every two minutes. On average, a woman in Australia dies violently every week, usually at the hands of someone she knows.

The pandemic has seen many gender inequalities amplified by the necessary actions taken to reduce the spread of the virus. “The very technique we are using to protect people from the virus,” says Anita Bhatia, the deputy executive director of UN Women, “can perversely impact victims of domestic violence.” During lockdowns, victims, usually women and children, can be trapped full-time in their homes with their abusers, with limited opportunities to ask for help.

There were early warning signs. Google searches for domestic violence help hit their highest number in five years – an increase of 75 per cent – likely because there were fewer opportunities for women to seek support by calling a helpline or leaving the premises. This pattern has continued with an increase in the number of women using the chat function of 1800Respect in the middle of the night, presumably when a perpetrator is asleep.

In the beginning, it was difficult to get an overall picture of the extent to which women and children were experiencing increased violence and coercive control during the pandemic, but some clear findings have emerged: there is more violence in more Australian homes, the severity of violence has increased and Covid-19 is being weaponised within the home as a tool of abuse.

This includes different forms of violence, including domestic and family violence, sexual harassment, institutional violence and neglect, racist abuse and workplace abuse, and image-based abuse. A report by Dr Anastasia Powell and Dr Asher Flynn found so-called revenge porn has skyrocketed during lockdown.

The federal government announced early, in March, some measures to support Australians’ mental health, as well as resources for and information about family violence and sexual assault services.

In May, the Australian Institute of Criminology surveyed 15,000 women and found that 4.6 per cent who responded experienced physical or sexual violence from a current or former cohabiting partner in the three months prior to the survey, which was also when the Covid-19 lockdowns began. Two-thirds of these women said the violence had started or had escalated in this time.

These findings have been reinforced by surveys of front-line domestic violence workers, including one by Monash University in April, which found domestic violence had spiked since the start of the pandemic. This included an increase in first-time family violence reported by 42 per cent of the front-line domestic violence worker respondents in the Victorian survey, with more than half of the respondents reporting an increase in the frequency and severity of domestic violence. In Queensland, 70 per cent of practitioners observed an escalation in the violence experienced by women in May.

Domestic violence workers have also reported disturbing cases of men using the virus to threaten and coerce women. This “weaponising of the virus” includes reports of intimate partners misrepresenting the extent of quarantine measures and incidents where those experiencing domestic abuse are afraid to go to hospital due to the fear of contracting Covid-19.

There is no doubt that stress-related factors during the pandemic – including financial pressures, potential family disruption, social isolation, and disruption to people’s usual personal and social roles – can all compound or exacerbate the underlying conditions that lead to violence against women.

But while these factors can increase the severity and frequency of violence, they do not cause violence against women, and they do not excuse it. It is the same for alcohol and drug use, or the experience of mental illness.

Although there is no single cause of violence against women, research shows the main drivers of such violence are the condoning or trivialising of violence against women, men’s control of power and limits on women’s independence, adherence to rigid gender roles and disrespect towards women.

The international evidence shows consistently that gender inequality is at the core of the problem, so anything that further undermines the gains that society has made in relation to equality between men and women makes it harder to address the violence epidemic.

This is why a gender lens to the recovery is critical.

The differences between men’s and women’s experience of the pandemic’s effects are everywhere, if you are looking for them – from academic research rates by women plummeting during lockdown, to debates about who gets the decent workstation in the home, let alone the impact of phasing out government benefits.

By every measure, women do not fare as well as men in Australian society: they are more likely to engage in part-time and casual work, carry the primary responsibility for caregiving for both children and parents, and retire with less superannuation.

All these areas have been affected by the pandemic. Casual and part-time work have reduced; caregiving has increased, especially with students doing remote learning; and early access to superannuation has cut a swath through the retirement savings of women, more than a million of whom have accessed super early to pay their bills.

Women comprise the majority of front-line workers in healthcare, community services, cleaning, and aged and disability care. These kinds of care work, which have long been devalued and less well paid, have been crucial to the crisis response.

Already marginalised groups – including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women; women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, particularly those on temporary visas; and women with disabilities – face additional barriers for support, as well as higher rates of violence.

With the gender angle to this crisis so acute, commentators, economists, women’s organisations and business groups have decried the fact the Second Women’s Economic Security Package, announced last week – $231 million over four years – represents less than 1 per cent of total budget expenditure.

There are measures to assist women already in employment and education – with a focus on innovation and opportunities for women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics – as well as a refocus on aid funding in the Pacific, including humanitarian assistance that will help women and girls. But assistance for unemployed women – especially older women – and stay-at-home mothers is lacking.

Social and economic measures, such as universal childcare and early education, are pivotal to recovery.

Early in the pandemic, the federal government identified that the provision of free childcare was key to keeping essential workers afloat. This lifeboat was central to maintaining an essential workforce during a crisis, but it also gave us hope for potential long-term policy change.

So why was childcare the budget’s blind spot, especially when it is the closest thing to a silver bullet for increased women’s economic participation?

The immediate impacts of the pandemic on women’s loss of employment and income (initially, 5.3 per cent of employed women lost their jobs, compared with 3.9 per cent of men), combined with the predicted global recession, could result in women’s workforce participation declining dramatically. Without intervention, Covid-19 could entrench women’s economic insecurity. This has implications for the prevention of family violence, as limits to women’s independence and autonomy through unequal access to economic resources increase the risk of violence against women.

The statistics on violence are sickening and explain why those in the sector, especially in front-line services, are demanding urgent help, and why an emphasis on the provision of resources for prevention and response is central to our recovery from this pandemic.

The pandemic presents a chance to reimagine and transform aspects of our society and economy in ways that not only increase resilience and help us recover more rapidly but will also boost and accelerate our efforts to prevent violence against women and advance gender equality.

This is not about a standalone budget; it is about hearing women’s voices and considering the impacts of this crisis on their lives. You can’t continue to have what Angela Jackson, lead economist at Equity Economics, calls “a male toolkit for economic recessions”.

Gender equality needs to be embedded through economic stimulus measures, increasing the value placed on women’s unpaid domestic labour and care through public policy measures and strategies to value and fairly remunerate those working in female-dominated industries.

Our national response to the pandemic could strengthen women’s economic security, independence, economic participation and decision-making in public life.

These are all measures that will help reduce violence against women.

National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service 1800 737 732

This is the third in a series of essays that will run through October, each examining how Covid-19 will reshape key issues facing our nation.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 17, 2020 as "After the virus: A plan for women".

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Natasha Stott Despoja is the chair of Our Watch. She is a former senator for South Australia and a former leader of the Australian Democrats.