DEMAND for the specialist services responding to family and sexual abuse in central Victoria has long been high.
But dramatic changes to the way people live and work have this year heightened pressure on many living with violence, and the agencies seeking to help.
After-hours calls to Annie North from women experiencing family violence have significantly increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"In February, we had about 10 referrals a month," Annie North chief executive Julie Oberin said.
"By June, that had doubled to 20 a month.
"In September and October they were in the mid-20s... it is still increasing. It's increasing across the state."
The Centre for Non-Violence has recorded spikes in calls coinciding with the easing of COVID-19 restrictions.
Central Victoria's Centre Against Sexual Assault is bracing for an increase in reports as people spend less time at home and more time in environments where they can safely disclose abuse.
The region's specialist agencies aren't the only ones contending with increased demand, with family violence incidents up almost 12 per cent statewide from April to June compared to the same period in 2019.
Those on the front line aren't only dealing with more incidents, but heightened risk to victims and increasingly complex cases.
Cobaw Community Health chief executive Margaret McDonald told attendees at an online event the pandemic had added a layer of complexity and risk staff had not seen before.
"As a community health service, we know almost every part of our service has been touched across a whole age spectrum," Ms McDonald said.
Ms Oberin said there had been a rise in reports of elder abuse, statewide, as people moved back home due to job losses or changes to modes of tertiary study.
Technology-facilitated abuse increased, and there was debate about criminalising coercive control.
Women's Health Loddon Mallee chief executive Tricia Currie said the pandemic posed challenges that went to the heart of the drivers of gender-based violence.
"It is very much reinforced through disaster that gender comes into play in terms of the expectations on women and on men," Ms Currie said.
Rigid gender stereotypes are among the drivers of violence against women.
Disrespect towards women, condoning of violence against women and men's control of decision-making are among the other factors.
A global movement against gender-based violence is underway, known as the 16 Days of Activism.
Though the United Nations system's campaign formally runs from November 25 to December 10, central Victorian experts have highlighted the need for a constant commitment to change.
Awareness was one of the key areas in which the region's experts identified room for improvement.
Several speakers at the Loddon Consortium's online event, titled 'It was always a pandemic', raised concerns about recognition of abuse and the contexts in which it occurred.
One of the Centre for Non-Violence's executive managers, Yvette Jaczina, said understanding what constituted family violence remained a real challenge for both the general community and parts of the system responding to abuse.
Ms Jaczina noted an emphasis on physical violence as an indication of risk.
"Staff at the Centre for Non-Violence are advocating all the time for recognition of the risk women and children are facing due to other forms of violence, including coercive control, that are minimised or brushed off," she said.
She said that was changing, but "it is a journey".
Ms Oberin was also concerned about a lack of recognition of what violence looked like, along with its drivers.
But she, too, believed there was progress.
"We have a rising number of people in the community that now recognise that violence against women is not just physical, but very much about coercive and controlling behaviours that constitute a pattern of abuse," Ms Oberin told the Bendigo Advertiser.
"More people in our community are challenging abusive behaviour when they see it.
"If more of us... continue to do this, we will reduce this gender-based violence."
Some front line services recorded increased calls from bystanders - people concerned someone was at risk of violence, or who had witnessed an incident, rather than the victims themselves.
Centre Against Sexual Assault Central Victoria chief executive Kate Wright raised a need to recognise that sexual assault occurred as part of family violence, and external to it.
"There has been a huge investment in family violence response... but sexual assault is still very silent in most government documents," Ms Wright said.
In addition to building awareness of violence and its effects, the experts discussed the need for systemic changes that empowered women.
Ms Currie said pandemic recovery provided opportunities to create a more equitable future, rather than reverting back to the status quo.
An understanding that gender equality didn't mean anyone losing power would be essential to creating change, Ms Wright said.
Violence against women and children was harmful to everyone, Ms Oberin said.
"Despite it being prevalent for so long it does not have to be like this and we can change our expectations, our attitudes and our behaviour," she said.
Ms Oberin said most people wanted to help but were either afraid or did not know what to do.
She encouraged community members to read and share the Australian Women Against Violence Alliance's 10-step guide to helping end violence against women.
Steps included immediately seeking help, and staying informed.
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Speaking earlier in the 16 Days of Activism, Centre for Non-Violence chief executive Margaret Augerinos said a whole of community effort was needed to address the drivers of gender-based violence.
She emphasised the responsibility on men, the primary perpetrators of violence against women.
"Many men are horrified by how women and children are treated, but you need to be more than horrified, you do need to be taking those active steps," Ms Augerinos said.
"Men need to be supported and given the tools to be able to recognise what this is."
She invited men to consider the things they had privilege over and how they could level the playing field.
"It requires men to create space for women to be equal on a whole lot of system and personal levels," Ms Augerinos said.
If you or someone you know is experiencing violence, help is available:
In an emergency, phone 000.
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