Disaster is no excuse for family violence

Learn more about increased gender-based violence in disaster

What do we mean by ‘disaster’?

According to the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR), ‘disaster’ describes any hazardous event that interacts with pre-existing vulnerabilities and inequalities to disrupt the everyday functioning of a community or society.

While the scale and impact of a disaster may vary in terms of its human, material, economic, and environmental impacts and losses — its effects can be immediate and localised, but are most often widespread and last for a long period of time.

Disasters are serious disruptions to the functioning of a community, and they exceed its capacity to cope using its own resources.

In our work, we use the term ‘disaster’ to refer to pandemics and natural hazards such as bushfires, floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, cyclones, and plague. Slow-onset disasters like drought are excluded from the definition, as well as war and terrorism.

Family violence is the ‘hidden disaster’ that continues to affect communities long after the fire front has passed or the floodwaters have receded.

Defining violence against women

Violence against women encompasses all forms of violence, harassment, abuse, and coercive control that women experience, and that is overwhelmingly perpetrated by men — both those known and trusted, as well as strangers. It includes physical, sexual, emotional, psychological, financial, and other forms of violence.

Domestic or family violence refers to any of the above violent, threatening, coercive, or controlling behaviour that occurs in a current or past family, domestic or intimate relationship.

Violence against women is a problem of epidemic proportions in Australia. It is both a serious violation of women’s human rights, and a financial burden to the whole of society.

Drivers of violence against women

According to Our Watch’s Change the Story framework, there are four primary drivers of violence against women:

  1. Condoning of violence against women
  2. Men’s control of decision-making and limits to women’s independence in public and private life
  3. Rigid gender stereotyping and dominant forms of masculinity
  4. Male peer relations and cultures of masculinity that emphasise aggression, dominance and control

Violence against women is both a symptom and a cause of gender inequality, and a barrier to its achievement. These drivers are reinforced by:

  1. Condoning of violence, in general
  2. Experience of, and exposure to, violence
  3. Factors that weaken prosocial behaviour (reducing empathy, respect and concern for women; stress, environmental factors, disasters and crises; male-dominated settings and heavy alcohol consumption)
  4. Resistance and backlash to prevention and gender equality efforts

What is the link between gender and disaster?

When disaster strikes, outdated and harmful gendered expectations are amplified. Women are expected to sacrifice their own safety and wellbeing for the family, and men are expected to provide and protect, even in disasters. This contributes to increased violence against women and their children and negative consequences for women, men and LGBTQIA+ people, long after disaster.

Excuses are made for men’s violence because they may have suffered in the disaster, or because they are seen as ‘good blokes’ and even ‘heroic’. This condoning of men’s violence against women and their children is unhelpful to disaster survivors.

Drivers of violence against women in disaster include:

  • Increase in existing gender inequalities
  • Increased pressure to conform to rigid, binary gender stereotypes
  • Privileging men and their suffering as an excuse for violence
  • Promotion of unrealistic versions of masculinity and ‘male’ forms of heroism

Masculinity and disaster

Our research shows that, during and after disaster there is increased pressure on men to conform to rigid, damaging masculine stereotypes, meaning that:

  • Community aggression and male violence increase
  • Men may be penalised for seeking psychological help or showing emotion
  • Anger is more acceptable than a man’s tears
  • Fears of failing to ‘live up’ to a hyper-masculine ideal or of losing work

“This is about men being men, as they see themselves, as we see ourselves, in response to disasters. In public we are strong and fearless and not affected, but the implication for many women is when we come home, we don’t cope at all.” – Tim Cartwright, Former Victoria Police Acting Commissioner.

The ‘hidden’ disaster

Our research also shows that women’s reluctance to report violence against them was exacerbated in the aftermath of disaster, with women who did speak out reporting:

  • Family members ignoring or accusing them of ‘overreacting’
  • They were blamed for not caring well enough for ‘their men’
  • Fear of recrimination from both the community and their violent partners
  • Health professionals failing to follow up or willing to drop the issue if the alleged perpetrator denied any violence
  • They were referred to inappropriate services
  •  Police failed to follow their code of conduct regarding DV, asking them to ‘give it some time’ because of the circumstances

“In disasters, there is enormous pressure on women not to speak of men’s violence—from family members, friends, police, and even health professionals. We need to be willing to hear women when they speak of the violence against them, including after disasters.” – Dr Debra Parkinson, leading researcher and Executive Director of Gender and Disaster Australia.

What the research says

There have been upwards of 50 notable studies on gender-based-violence in disasters in 14 different countries published between 1993 and 2020, and 16 multi-country studies between 1998 and 2018. They show:

  • A 98 per cent increase in the prevalence of physical victimisation of women following Hurricane Katrina in the US, from 4.2 percent to 8.3 percent of women (2010)
  • A 53 per cent increase in family violence call outs on the weekend of the Christchurch earthquake in NZ (2010)
  • For every 3 months that COVID-19 lockdowns continue, an additional 15 million cases of domestic violence occur worldwide (2020, UNFPA)

Closer to home, the stats are equally stark.

  • In our research (the first of its kind in Australia), there was evidence from 16 women of new or exacerbated violence linked directly to Black Saturday bushfires
  • Quantitative evidence shows that women were 7 times more likely than their peers to have experienced violence in communities severely impacted by the Black Saturday bushfires compared to low impacted communities
  • During the initial stages of COVID-19, two thirds of women who had experienced domestic violence said it had started or escalated during the pandemic
  • 60 percent of Victorian family violence practitioners reported an increase in violence against women since the first COVID-19 lockdown, and 50 percent an increase in severity

We all have a role to play

Australians have an estimated 1 in 6 chance of experiencing disaster in their lifetime. By understanding and applying a gendered lens at each stage of disaster, from planning to response and recovery, we allow for a more accurate assessment of vulnerabilities and strengths, and we can rebuild stronger and more inclusive communities when disaster strikes. We all have a role to play in negating the ‘hidden disaster’ of violence against women after disasters.