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Words are not enough, but it's still time we all made our voices heard

Opinion

It’s a sad phenomenon that during the COVID-19 pandemic, more women and families are experiencing violence behind closed doors, writes Rebecca Levingston

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Her phone flashed and she felt sick. The beautiful, strong, accomplished woman sitting opposite me doesn’t know what to do.

My friend is receiving text messages from her ex-partner. His messages are violent and erratic and she wants them to stop. He’s sick. She’s gone to police and was confounded when they said she shouldn’t let him know that he’s scaring her. That would only make him feel powerful, they said.

She’s let the neighbours know that if they hear a physical altercation they should call triple zero immediately. She hasn’t blocked the messages, because she wants to at least know where he is … just in case. In case of what? Neither of us knows what might happen.

I struggle to find something useful or comforting to say. Those messages are a violent incursion in her life. They’re not OK. They’re also not against the law. Threats can be a criminal offence, but you may not be able to take legal action unless the harassment is enough to get a domestic violence order.

Plus, it’s a huge thing to escalate. Police, lawyers, time, money, stress. She just wants to get on with her life.

Last week I interviewed the newly appointed Attorney-General of Queensland, Shannon Fentiman, who’s also the Minister for Women and the Minister for the Prevention of Domestic and Family Violence. She was announcing a two-million-dollar grant scheme to assist frontline DV agencies. The demand for their services shot up this year.

It’s a sad global phenomenon that during this pandemic, more families are experiencing violence behind closed doors. UN Women call it the shadow pandemic. The numbers are overwhelming. But it was a set of much smaller figures revealed by the Attorney-General that have stuck in my mind.

One in 10 Australian women experienced domestic violence during COVID-19. Two-thirds of those said the violence started or became worse during this pandemic.

One in ten … think about your friendship circle, your work colleagues or next time you’re in a crowded place. How many of the people there are going home to unsafe spaces? It’s made me reflect on the conversations I’ve had this year with people who’ve had partners behave in unacceptable ways. Cruel conversations, withholding information and sexual violence.

Queensland will consider criminalising coercive control but it’s complicated.  Everyone has a right to decide their own barriers for tolerable behaviour. That’s also part of the challenge.

After I left my friend and her text messages, I got home and I looked up 1800 Respect, which has a section explaining how to support someone who’s experiencing domestic violence 

When you visit the 1800 Respect website, at the top of the page in bold red letters is the line “Call 000 if you are in danger” and then in small blue letters a chilling question is posed: “Are you worried someone will find out you visited this website?”

Sometimes a friend just wants you to provide a safe space to share. So I’m thinking about my friend and those text messages and wondering if I should do more.

We must all be allies to people experiencing violence. Sometimes I’m cynical about the campaigns to stop violence against women – rates are increasing despite the much-lauded line that we are at least “talking about it”. Is that enough?

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