Domestic violence increased after the Black Saturday bushfires

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Women were hit by a rise in domestic violence following the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria 2009, a study has found.

This is the first Australian research to capture women’s experiences of domestic violence after a catastrophic disaster. Victoria is one of the three most fire-prone areas in the world.

The findings include that women experiencing increased male violence were silenced into supporting suffering men who had been heroes in the fires or were traumatised or unemployed as a result of the disaster.

Dr Debra Parkinson will present the research at Australia’s largest emergency management conference, Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council, this week in Brisbane.

The little research that does exists internationally indicates that not only is the notion of “women and children first” a myth but that women are disproportionally affected by disasters.

Interviews with 30 women in two shires in Victoria confirmed that domestic violence increased following the Black Saturday fires on February 7, 2009.

Dr Parkinson says there is also a higher death rate of women after disasters.

Police reported a 53% increase in domestic violence after the 2010 Canterbury earthquake in New Zealand. In the US, there was a 98% increase in physical violence against women after Hurricane Katrina.

In this Victorian study, 17 women reported violence against them. For nine, this was new violence and for others it was violence that had sharply escalated from pre-disaster levels.

One woman said: “It’s in him — and what’s happened since the fires is, there seems to be no control on his emotions. He’s just completely reactionary, when once he was able to moderate or there was at least some kind of understanding to his rage and anger. There was some context. Now there’s no context to his rage. It just seems to be completely random.”

The women spoke of seeking help.

“With family, they were ignored, accused of over-reacting, and blamed for not caring well enough for their men,” Dr Parkinson writes in the study.

“The women told of health professionals failing to follow up on initial conversations and willing to drop the issue if the man denied any violence; or simply being passed on to inappropriate services.”

Dr Parkinson says the disaster resulted in reinforcement of traditional gender roles.

“Men were expected to provide and protect, and women were expected to put their own needs last, forgoing employment and leadership roles in disaster recovery to first and foremost support their husband and children,” she says.

She says this expectation extended to tolerating domestic violence for the greater good of the man, the family and community.

“The research revealed that the progress made in recognising family violence as criminal is easily lost in disaster,” Dr Parkinson says.