National women's safety summit to address domestic and family violence

Senator Anne Ruston. Picture: Keegan Carroll
Senator Anne Ruston. Picture: Keegan Carroll

A plea to economically free women to make their own choices about violent relationships, especially those on social welfare, has come from advocates just ahead of Australia's first National Women's Safety Summit.

Domestic and family violence cases are skyrocketing during extended Covid lockdowns. Twenty-nine Australian women have been murdered so far this year, on top of 56 last year.

"Violence against women is still a national pandemic, you know, its own disaster and it was before," the chief executive of violence prevention group Our Watch, Patty Kinnersly, told Australian Community Media.

"We're definitely hearing that women have been disproportionately impacted [during Covid]."

The federal government-hosted Women's Safety Summit will convene on Monday, virtually due to Covid restrictions and with around 300 official participants, as a way to gather information and ideas to develop the second national plan to reduce violence against women and children.

Announced among the many inquiries, public rallies and further revelations in the wake of the alleged assault of former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins in Parliament House, the summit will guide the next tranche of funding for women's safety.

Women's Safety Minister Anne Ruston acknowledged the tragic cases known to the public, such as the murder of Hannah Clark and her three children, and viewed the summit as a "great opportunity" to shine a light on the problem while also helping to drive changes in behaviour.

"The summit is about giving us the opportunity to be able to give the whole of Australia the opportunity to be able to have their say. And then the next National Plan has to be an ambitious plan," she told Australian Community Media.

"I want every single person in Australia to be able to come out, after this plan comes out, to be able to say, 'Yes, I can do something about this, I can play a role and we show them how that can be done'."

The group Economic Justice Australia wants the summit to address income support, saying the social security system can tie women in abusing relationships to their abusers as they are regarded officially as a member of a couple.

"Any woman who is trying to escape from a domestic violence situation needs an independent source of income, both to escape and also in the longer term to re-establish their lives in safety," the group's executive officer Leanne Ho said.

Women can be threatened with being 'dobbed in' to Centrelink after the financial abuse of coercive behaviour that can include withholding money or lying on income tests to affect the women's payments.

"So not only does she not have that independent source of income, but now the system can be used to trap her," Ms Ho said.

Ms Ho urged legislative changes to allow for coercion to be taken into account when it comes to waiving debts.

"It is just completely out of step with community values now that you could be held responsible for the false information that another person provides," she said.

"Especially when the consequence is so serious as to trigger prosecution and possible jail."

Ms Ruston, who is also the minister for social services, highlighted the federal government's $5000 escaping domestic violence payment and a separate crisis payment announced in the May budget.

But she was "more than happy" to talk about coercive control at the summit.

"Coercive control is super, super important issue for us to be discussing, but we've also put in place at Services Australia specifically-trained social workers to look at this particular issue because we know it is new and emerging," she said.

Australian of the Year and advocate for abuse survivors, Grace Tame, is attending the summit but has reservations.

"In several ways, this summit misses. Marginalised groups are underrepresented, many survivors have been excluded and prevention isn't a key focus-to name a few. But even in the face of blatant lip service, co-optation and tokenism, we must remain hopeful," she tweeted ahead of the summit.

"I don't believe this government has earned the authority to inform us on the safety of our nation's women and children, but this is an opportunity for them to listen and learn. If they do, and swift action is taken accordingly, there is great potential for change to follow."

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This story Women's safety summit confronts 'other' national pandemic first appeared on The Canberra Times.