Rosie Batty and Kate Fitz-Gibbon, Monash Gender and Family Violence Prevention Centre
There have been many achievements since the Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence, but the significant challenge of women’s homelessness remains critical to addressing women’s safety and securing their recovery from family violence. Since the Victorian Royal Commission handed down its landmark report and 227 recommendations in 2016, Victoria has rightly prided itself on its commitment to a world leading family violence reform agenda. In the intervening seven years there has been unprecedented government commitment to improve system responses to family violence accompanied by over $4 billion in funding to support implementation of the reform agenda.
Nationally, family violence is the leading cause of women and children’s homelessness. It is estimated that up to half of women who experience homelessness first become homeless because of their experiences of abuse and at the point of terminating an abusive relationship. Critically, in recent years, women aged 55 years and older have become the fastest growing population of homeless persons in Australia. This is a frightening reality and one which highlights the economic consequences of decades of intimate partner violence and economic insecurity.
Every person has a right to housing. And yet this is not a right that is being fulfilled for many women victim-survivors of family violence across Victoria on any given night.
Importantly, there is a right to adequate housing. Despite this, at present, across Melbourne there is limited availability of social housing – this includes the housing needed both at the immediate point of crisis as well as in the longer term. This challenge of securing safe and affordable housing is further heightened for women with children.
Children in their own right require a stable and secure place to call home for them to explore their potential and become productive members of their community. Nationally 25 per cent of young people are homeless as a result of domestic and family violence. Young people comprise 24 per cent of the homeless population in Australia. For some children their living conditions are so unsafe and intolerable they feel that they have no choice but to leave and are then less likely to stay engaged with school, maintain friendships or obtain employment. Young people experiencing homelessness are also particularly vulnerable to other forms of violence, abuse and sexual exploitation throughout their lifetime.
The National Plan to end Violence against Women and Children (2022-2032), which was released earlier this year, embeds a focus on the recovery and healing of victim-survivors. The Federal, State and Territory governments have all signed onto delivering upon this Plan which aims to end gender-based violence in one generation. The commitment to better support the recovery and healing needs of victim-survivors necessitates significant progress towards eliminating housing insecurity and addressing women’s homelessness, and to addressing the financial dependence and insecurity that women victim-survivors often experience during and in the aftermath of family violence.
But this is not just about recovering and healing. The intersection between homelessness and family violence has a significant impact on a woman’s decision of whether or not to leave an abusive relationship.
Leaving an abuser, for many women victim-survivors, means leaving the shared family home. The options for accessing safe and affordable housing are few and far between, particularly for those victim-survivors who have been financially controlled by their abuser, and who have had their access to education and employment limited over the period of their relationship. As research released by Anne Summers in 2022 found, often women, in these circumstances, face a decision of living with abuse or living in poverty. An impossible choice and one which requires whole of community solutions.
The choice that women victim-survivors face has been heightened since the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Research conducted by the Monash Gender and Family Violence Prevention Centre, among others, has documented that family violence increased in frequency and severity during periods of government enforced lockdowns. While public health measures have now eased, the rising cost of living represents a significant barrier for women seeking to leave an abusive relationship. We know that across Australia women are economically disadvantaged in comparison to men – they experience less employment security, face a gender pay gap which recent research estimates will not be addressed for another 200 years, and are more likely to be balancing primary caring responsibilities. Economic insecurity is further heightened for First Nations women, women with disability, pregnant women, migrant and refugee women. The solutions are not simplistic but they are possible. We must continue to re-imagine what it would look like to deliver a whole of community response to family violence that supports women to not only survive but to thrive beyond their experience of abuse.
As Melbourne progresses its commitment to reaching zero homelessness, it must have women victim-survivors of family violence at front of mind. Securing their safety, and delivering upon their right to safe and secure housing, is essential to delivering upon two of the Government’s ambitious strategies - to end homelessness and to secure a Victoria free from violence.