By Kerry Kingham, CEO, The Chooze Shop

In recent months, the epidemic of violence against women has reached terrifying levels in communities across Australia. While many across the community are taking a stand, and looking to identify the actions that will lead to systemic change, one group that is all too often overlooked in this conversation is women with disabilities.

Domestic violence remains a pervasive issue in Australia, which claims the lives of many women each year and leaves countless others living in fear and trauma. Recently, Prime Minister

Anthony Albanese declared a national crisis following the outcry over the rise in the number of killings of women by their intimate partners. In response, government leadership has pledged action to address the crisis, including new funding to support survivors and measures to combat misogynistic content online.

While this declaration acknowledges the rise of domestic violence against women, one group that goes unnoticed in these discussions is women with disabilities. As an advocate for the disability community, I am uniquely concerned with the unique challenges faced by this vulnerable group. While the recent investments to combat domestic violence in the federal budget are commendable, there is a significant gap in addressing the specific needs of those with disabilities who are victims of domestic violence.

Investing in women’s safety: the 2024 Federal Budget 

As outlined by the office of Senator the Hon Katy Gallagher, the Minister for Finance, Minister for Women and Minister for the Public Service, ending violence against women and children has been a priority for the Albanese Government. Funding in the 2024 Budget brings the Labor Government’s total investment in supporting women’s safety and the National Plan to End Violence Against Women and Children 2022-2032 to over $3.4 billion.

The 2024 Federal Budget is delivering several key initiatives, including:

  • $925.2 million over five years for the Leaving Violence Program, which provides financial support for victim-survivors leaving a violent intimate partner relationship, as well as support services for up to 12 weeks.
  • $44.1 million in 2024-25 to support the National Legal Assistance Partnership and Family Violence Prevention Legal Services. This includes one-year indexation supplementation for Legal Aid Commissions, Community Legal Centres and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services, along with additional funding to address community legal sector pay disparity.
  • $19.4 million over two years to establish a National Student Ombudsman to help eradicate gender-based violence from universities.
  • $18.7 million over four years to establish a National Higher Education Code to Prevent and Respond to Gender-Based Violence.
  • $13.1 million in targeted investments to support refugee and migrant women, including funding for the Settlement Engagement and Transition Support program and support for visa holders experiencing domestic and family violence.
  • $11.7 million over two years to extend the First Nations Family Dispute Resolution pilot, ensuring culturally safe family dispute resolution services.
  • $6.5 million in 2024-25 for the Age Assurance Pilot to Protect Children from Harmful Online Content.

While these initiatives are certainly promising, there is a glaring omission. There is no specific mention of support for women with disabilities experiencing domestic violence.

Alarming statistics

The impact of domestic violence on women with disabilities is deeply concerning. According to the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability in 2021, two in five (40 per cent) women with disabilities have experienced physical violence after the age of 15, compared to 26 per cent of women without disabilities. Women with disabilities are also twice as likely to experience sexual violence over one year compared to women without disabilities, with 46 per cent of women with cognitive disabilities and 50per cent of women with psychological disabilities having experienced sexual violence, compared to 16 per cent of women without disabilities.

Given the current climate, it is likely that these statistics, along with other domestic violence statistics, have increased since 2021. It is telling that there have been no further studies in recent years, and it would not be surprising to hear that women with disabilities feel their needs are once again being neglected. We need to remember that these numbers represent real women whose lives are profoundly impacted by violence and abuse.

The complexities of support 

While there is a much higher prevalence of physical and sexual violence towards women with disabilities, the broad funding approach currently offered by the government is unlikely to meet the needs of many of these women. Women with disabilities have more complex needs than an average person, with many requiring access to accessible housing, support workers and significant medical, physical or cognitive support.

One of the most significant issues facing women with disabilities experiencing domestic violence is the fact that perpetrators of this violence are often those whom the victims rely on for daily support. This can include carers, family members or even healthcare providers. If it’s a carer or family member who is providing their care, women are not eligible for the $5,000 payment currently available to those fleeing a violent partner. This means that women with disabilities often cannot escape their abusers without losing critical support for their daily living.

Challenges in seeking help

The current support systems, such as the NDIS and Centrelink, are not equipped to address this complex web of dependence and abuse. Social Services Minister Amanda Rishworth recently stated that those with disabilities, in danger from a violent carer or family member, should go to the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission or Centrelink. While well-intentioned, this advice fails to address the immediate safety needs of women with disabilities who are in abusive situations.

The main role of the Commission is to improve the quality and safety of services funded by the NDIS. We need to remember, the role of the NDIS is not to protect people with disabilities from individual acts of domestic violence. This is the role of other government services and the police. In a sector where their existing lifeboat (the NDIS) is already stretched and under-resourced, with extended timelines for simple plan reviews or new resources, one question begs. How are women with disabilities facing domestic violence being supported at a time where a member of their existing support networks may well be the perpetrator, or where moving outside of that existing network is prohibitive because of their health needs?

Many people with disabilities depend on their abusers for physical assistance. Sometimes the abuser may encourage this as a means of gaining more control, pushing away other caregivers to isolate the victim. Abusers can use access to communication devices as a means of controlling people with disabilities. Simply placing a mobile device on a high shelf could be enough to take away someone’s access to family and friends. When other tactics, like gaslighting, financial abuse, or other forms of coercive control are used, the abuse may be harder to recognise.

Even if they manage to escape their abuser, women’s shelters and other community resources often lack the necessary accessibility and resources to support women with disabilities. Packing up and leaving a familiar environment is traumatic for any woman in this situation, but this is compounded for women with disabilities who often have complex health needs. Imagine having to step away from trusted health professionals and support workers and being placed in an environment where you have none of these supports available.

The need for more inclusive policies 

If we are to provide more support, the government must not overlook the unique needs of women with disabilities in its domestic violence policies. We need to keep the alarming figures of disproportionate violence against women with disabilities front of mind to ensure that all funding models, resources and initiatives are viewed through the lens of disability and accessibility.

This includes ensuring that shelters are accessible and accommodating for the varied needs of women with different disabilities, providing specialised training for support workers in these settings and creating targeted funding programs to support this vulnerable group. Moreover, we need to establish robust reporting and intervention systems that can respond swiftly and effectively to the needs of women with disabilities. These systems should not only provide financial assistance but also ensure a continuum of care that addresses both immediate and long-term needs.

Moreover, both financial and physical support should not be limited to those who are seeking to escape a violent partner. It is well documented that coercive control is often a precursor to physical violence and that domestic violence can be perpetrated by individuals other than intimate partners, such as caregivers or family members. Despite this, current assistance programs, as outlined in recent federal budget initiatives, predominantly focus on intimate partner violence. This approach inadvertently neglects those whose situations do not fit this mould.

As a society, we must commit to doing better — ensuring that our responses and solutions to domestic violence encompass all aspects of our diverse community, not simply the ones which are most obvious or visible. This is not only a matter of policy, but a moral imperative. We must strive to create a society where every individual has access to safe and supportive environments free from violence. By building solutions which address the needs of women with disabilities, we will also inherently improve the outcomes for all individuals affected by all forms of domestic violence.

Image: Bricolage/shutterstock.com

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