Women's Health Goulburn North East
Women's Health Goulburn North East

57 Rowan Street, Wangaratta, 3677
Tel 03 5722 3009 | Fax 03 5722 3020
Email whealth@whealth.com.au

Organisation     Publications     Training     Current Work     Health Contacts     History     Contact Us     Home

Women's Experiences in the Aftermath of the Black Saturday Bushfire

No Australian research on domestic violence after disasters

Domestic violence, child abuse and divorce have increased in the wake of overseas disasters, including US disasters, Cyclone Katrina and Hurricane Andrew.

In Australia, there is almost no attention on determining whether these trends are true for this country.

It is vital that, post the 2009 fires, we have a good knowledge of what actually happened to women during and after this disaster.

New research from Women's Health Goulburn North East aims to document the experiences and perceptions of workers regarding the increase of domestic violence and the accounts of women who have experienced or continue to experience violent behaviour from their partners post fires.

Existing Australian research generally takes a sociological approach, with a focus on what happens to people - the stresses and challenges they face and the effects on finances, work and housing. Some studies have looked at the practical aspects of individual and community recovery, like communications and media or they have simply evaluated recovery responses.

This research will ask women and workers about family violence in any of its forms - whether verbal, emotional, psychological, physical, sexual or financial.

Research into individual and community recovery from the 2003 Canberra bushfires reported on relationships with family, friends and community, and health and wellbeing issues, but did not ask respondents about domestic violence or other forms of violence against women.

Where researchers have noted the link between disaster and increased violence against women, they attribute possible causes to heightened stress, alcohol abuse, lapses in constraints to behaviour offered by legal and societal expectations.

A leading US disaster researcher, Elaine Enarson, wrote that from Peru to Alaska, men cope through alcohol abuse and aggression. Another, Duke Austin, wrote of a kind of 'hyper-masculinity' that emerges from the stress and loss that can lead to increased levels of violence and discord in heterosexual relationships. He suggested that, 'Men are likely to have a feeling of inadequacy because they are unable to live up to the expectations of their socially-constructed gender role [leading some] to act in violent and abusive ways toward the women in their lives'.

Community attitudes continue to excuse this violence. A 2006 VicHealth survey found that a large proportion of Australians believed 'domestic violence can be excused if it results from temporary anger or results in genuine regret'. Such violence may even be seen as legitimate, and excused because this is 'the way men behave'.

Women who have suffered violence from their partner before a disaster may experience increased violence in the aftermath and other women may experience partner violence as a new event or pattern following a disaster. In disaster situations, domestic violence may well be buried even further beneath public consciousness, as all efforts are channelled into the recovery.

Ironically, disasters can provide women with new options in leaving a violent partner. These opportunities can emerge though new confidence in the woman's own ability, brought about by the way she coped with the disaster, or by using grants or insurance payouts to enable her to leave.

We believe that by listening to the voices of women who have live through disasters and giving them a safe space to talk of their experiences, the result will be important new insights as to how to make all women safer during disasters.

If evidence shows that domestic violence has not significantly risen during this recent disaster, then the important question for agencies and communities is 'what are we doing right?'

This work has now been published in a report, ‘The way he tells it…’ Relationships after Black Saturday