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Prime Minister Scott Morrison during the National Summit on Women's Safety. Source: NCA NewsWire/Gary Ramage.

Older women need targeted focus in next violence prevention plan: advocates

Advocates and experts have said that a lack of affordable housing and elder abuse must be spotlighted in the upcoming national plan to reduce violence against women and their children. 

Political leaders, advocates and victim-survivors recently convened for a national women’s safety summit to push forward the agenda for the next plan, which will be drafted by the end of this year.

Manager of the NSW Older Women’s Advocacy Network (OWN) Yumi Lee said while the event addressed key issues, there was a “missed opportunity” to brainstorm concrete solutions to protect older women.

“​​It's not just intimate partner violence which older women are exposed to, but also violence perpetrated by others in the family,” Lee told Aged Care Insite.

“We know of cases where sons and daughters have been violent towards their mother.

“That is one theme which was missing from the summit, the discussion of violence experienced by older women, which is different to that experienced by younger women with their children and intimate partners.”

One in 6 women have experienced domestic abuse in Australia.

While data is limited, around fifty per cent of reported assaults against older women are committed by a family member.

Higher rates of physical, emotional and sexual abuse are associated with a lack of housing, lower income and presence of a disability. 

As the fastest growing cohort at risk of homelessness, women aged over 65 are exposed to a myriad of challenges which leave them vulnerable to violence. 

“I think the fact that you have an unacceptable percentage of older women who are homeless, and who need to sleep in their cars and their vans, I think they're feeling extra stressed,” said Lee.

“Some of them are living in caravan parks and they have to move on. They can't stay there for too long, so it is difficult with places in lockdown and having to access vaccinations.

“Because of the expensive rentals and loss of jobs you get people coming back to live with mum, so that increases household stress, and older women find that they may be more financially abused.”

In response to chronic violence against women in Australia, the government has spent almost a billion dollars in implementing its first 12-year strategy.

A recent parliamentary inquiry found that “the rates of family, domestic and sexual violence has not decreased over the life of the national plan, and the rate of sexual violence is in fact increasing”.

In a roundtable discussion at last week’s summit, age discrimination commissioner Dr Kay Patterson drew attention to the need for more tailored funding to assist older women escaping domestic and intimate partner violence. 

“There is a desperate need for appropriate policies and adequate resources to address this every-increasing demand for safe and secure housing for older women,” she said. 

“Secure, safe housing for women is a national social emergency and needs to be dealt with as such.”

Patterson called upon policymakers to consider nationally consistent elder abuse laws and a national register for perpetrators for the next national plan.  

“We should be equally outraged and raise our voices against all forms of abuse against women irrespective of their age,” she said.

“We've had previous campaigns against abuse, for example Reclaim the Night, and now we need a campaign to reclaim the right for all Australian women, including older women, to feel and be safe and secure.”

A lifelong focus

According to a recent study, older women who have survived intimate partner violence are likely to experience detrimental health outcomes and are exposed to an increased risk of elder abuse.

Professor Deb Loxton from the University of Newcastle said these findings indicate a need for more support services and clinical monitoring during later life. 

“Partner violence but also violence in older age leads to earlier death and also significant health problems,” she said. 

“This is something we find across all age brackets, but of course with older women who may already have some existing health problems this can be exacerbated.”

Dr Loxton is the deputy director of the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health (ALSWH), which has led to significant insights on the lifelong impacts of domestic violence. 

Generational differences in how women report and access crisis services has been one of the most stark findings made over the past 20 years, according to Loxton.

“The older the woman, the less likely she is to report experiences of violence,” she said. 

“Quite a few of them have written about experiences of going to seek health services and being dismissed because of their age, or being blocked from certain services because of their age.

“We don’t think that means the prevalence is less, and when we do look at the prevalence of younger women they are much more likely to report it.”

According to Loxton, the long term recovery process should be considered in the next plan to address the lifelong impacts of violence. 

“When we look at long term impacts, say 10 years, or 20 years, or even 30 or 40 years beyond the violent act, we still see a deficit in physical and mental health.

“Bring together health, social services, attorney generals, but also bring together the practitioners from those disciplines, the people who’ve had those experiences.

“I think getting input from all of those parties is really important when you're addressing violence and the long term impact of violence.”

The next National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children is due to come into effect in July 2022. 

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