Warning: The following story contains content that may distress some readers.
Beth’s* husband had never been violent before bushfires endangered their property in northern Victoria. But amid the Black Saturday fires of 2009, he threatened her life.
“He stood up, put his hand on my neck … and he blocked my airways until I desperately lunged for air,” Beth says. “I landed on my knee on the slate tiles, breaking my kneecap in two.”
When Beth, in her 50s, sought help, she was stunned to find her friends blamed her for the violence — and health professionals refused to believe her.
A counselor even told Beth she was “pretty well off” compared to many neighbors: “I know couples that are so badly damaged there’s no hope for them, and their kids are damaged and everything’s a total mess,” Beth recalls the counselor saying.
Beth is not alone. Domestic violence increases following disasters, as does society’s willingness to look the other way, as research into the Black Saturday bushfires — including interviews with 30 women — found.
With a long, hot bushfire season ahead of us, Australia needs to prepare for this gender-based violence. But despite mounting evidence linking natural hazards to domestic violence — and despite extreme weather events set to increase with climate change — Australian authorities, policymakers and emergency responders may be under-prepared for this risk.
Men’s Violence Excused After Disasters
Australia has a poor track record of responding to domestic violence after disasters.
Following the Black Saturday bushfires, domestic violence was neglected in planning, recovery and reconstruction operations. Like Beth, many others I interviewed for my research said legal, community and health professionals responded inadequately to their reports of violence. Most disaster recovery authorities didn’t even gather statistics on rates of domestic violence following the fires.
This neglect may be partly because after a disaster, a culture of denial prevails to protect “good” men.
Thirsty for stories of courage and resilience, the media, government and health sectors shine a spotlight on the concept of community in disaster-affected regions. Their focus remains on the great national ethos, the indomitable human spirit and the kindness of others.
The notion of domestic violence after a disaster can evoke hostility towards those who speak of it.
Many victims I interviewed with colleague, the late Claire Zara, said they felt enormous yet unspoken pressure not to be “disloyal” by speaking about men’s violence.
They were told to think of what their men had been through, how heroic they had been, how they were acting out of character and “it was just the alcohol” causing the violence, or how the men were depressed or suicidal.
Women were advised to “give him some time.” This extended to police, who, in a misplaced sense of sensitivity post-disaster, did not follow their own Code of Conduct. Instead, they too told women to wait it out because “he’s a good bloke.”
Society’s legal institutions generally operate complicitly with men through capricious, ineffective, or indeed, no consequences for domestic violence perpetrators.
This is exacerbated in disasters, which are often understood as either a catalyst for the men’s violence or an excuse for it. In either case, men who chose to use violence were largely forgiven for it by community members and the professionals alerted to it after Black Saturday.
Traditional Gender Roles Compound Harm
Traditional gender roles are harmful to men as well as women, and can play a part in excusing men’s violence and silencing women’s reports of it.
In the aftermath of bushfires, men are likely to have a feeling of inadequacy because aspects of their socially-constructed gender role –protecting the family, fighting the fire and saving the house — are mostly unachievable in a catastrophic disaster.
There are expectations of stoicism from men. Although discouraged from crying, society’s tolerance for anger and violence from men is higher as this fits the masculine script.
Both in Australia and the U.S., researchers note the result is higher incidences of violence and abuse by men towards their female partners.
In my research with Claira Zara, one interviewee described the intense and intrusive questioning he faced regularly in the aftermath of bushfire: “Why haven’t you got it together? Why haven’t you got your garden fixed? Why haven’t you got your house done yet? What are you doing with your life? Why haven’t you gone back to work?”
In Australia, many of the responses from professionals working at the coalface of the Black Saturday fires tended to interpret men’s violence as unintentional violence, an anomaly, or a temporary lapse which given the right environment and appropriate support from the woman and the family, would right itself in time.
The message to women was that to intervene as if this was domestic violence would be a disservice to suffering, good men.
The willingness to overlook violence against women is exacerbated in post-disaster circumstances where the resources of support services are over-burdened with primary and fire-related needs.
Whether the men were suffering because of the trauma of the day, the losses they endured, or their current difficulties, it does not excuse their violence against women and children (who frequently were struggling with their own disaster experiences).
What Can Be Done
Disaster is no excuse for domestic violence. As gender and disaster experts have outlined, it is crucial violence against women be named, and the definition of domestic violence not altered to accommodate trauma after disaster.
A critical first step is increasing authorities’ willingness to hear women when they speak of violence against them. The decades-long rebuttal from emergency managers of, “Don’t talk to me about gender, I’ve got an emergency on my hands” is challenged by the budding realization that it is not only disaster that threatens lives.
This year, at least 56 women have been killed, allegedly through male violence in Australia, and countless others injured.
Gender-based violence experts have repeatedly called for everyone — from members of the public to first responders — to refuse to be complicit with men’s violence.
This can include learning how to ask and talk about domestic violence in disaster contexts, such as asking “are you safe at home?” and naming the violence (“what you’ve just described is violence and it’s a crime”).
Naming the problem is a key step toward change, so the media could commit to naming who is committing the violence against women and children: It is men in the overwhelming majority of cases.
By centering the man and his actions in hurting women and children, journalists have the power to make men visible when writing of domestic violence. Gender and disaster training for journalists could help ingrain this practice in newsrooms.
National guidelines on gender and emergency management exist, but they’re not well embedded within the policies and operations of all emergency services.
Gender and disaster training could be embedded into training calendars, and community advice about increased domestic violence accompanying disasters could be included in community meetings about disasters. Disaster-related organizations could ensure training for all disaster recovery workers, including volunteers, to identify domestic violence and refer.
Nominated disaster recovery leads could allocate responsibility for monitoring domestic violence, and reporting on it.
Finally, domestic violence agencies remain underfunded. If the national government better resourced these agencies, they could respond to referrals in disaster contexts, and take their rightful ‘seat at the table’ in disaster planning and recovery committees.
*Name changed for privacy reasons.