Australia coronavirus lockdown pushes ‘safe phones’ demand for women

A person holding a sign reading 'Break the silence' during a rally to denounce femicides and domestic violence in Le Havre, northwestern France. A scheme that hands out free phones to women facing domestic abuse to ensure they have access to secure safety has seen an 'uptick' in demand, a charity said, with requests doubling in some areas. — AFP

KUALA LUMPUR: Demand for "safe phones" given to Australian women facing domestic violence under a government-funded scheme has surged as coronavirus lockdown measures sparked concern that women are trapped with their abusers.

Countries across the world have imposed lockdown measures to contain the pandemic, after more than 420,000 people have been infected by the virus and about 19,000 died. Australia began similar curbs this week.

Human rights groups said social distancing measures could put women in abusive relationships at greater danger, including in Australia where one in six women is a victim, according to official data.

A scheme that hands out free phones to women facing domestic abuse to ensure they have access to secure safety has seen an "uptick" in demand, a charity said on Wednesday, with requests doubling in some areas.

"They are asking us to send more phones than usual," said Karen Bentley, the national director at Australia's Women Services Network, which spearheads the scheme, referring to nearly 300 support groups it works with.

"It will be very tricky for some women. There will be a variety of factors which can cause abuses to become more abusive, and use the virus as a tool to abuse," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

Since 2015, the scheme supported by the government and Australia's largest telecom company, Telstra, has given out more than 21,000 phones. Currently it is handing out an average of 600 units a month.

Women who face domestic violence often lack secure communication channels because their phones are either compromised due to surveillance by their partner or they have no access at all, said Bentley.

"It's common for abusers to control, smash or monitor their phone. Getting women their own phone can be really helpful," she added.

In New Zealand, which heads into a one-month lockdown at midnight, police said they constantly review their operations to deal with any possible rise in cases and the "current environment is a stressful one for many".

New Zealand has one of the worst records for family and intimate partner violence among developed nations, with police called out to an incident of domestic violence about every four minutes, a 2018 government report said.

Campaign group Women's Refuge urged local communities to regularly check in with women at risk during the lockdown.

"Isolation from wider family, friends, and colleagues is a well-known method abusers use to exercise control over victims," said Ang Jury, chief executive of the Wellington-based group. – Thomson Reuters Foundation

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