Domestic violence levels increase after disasters

PAST THE FLAMES: The ripple effects of a natural disaster spread beyond the immediate danger, with research showing levels of domestic violence can rise after a catastrophe.
PAST THE FLAMES: The ripple effects of a natural disaster spread beyond the immediate danger, with research showing levels of domestic violence can rise after a catastrophe.

WHEN a natural disaster strikes, we understand people go through difficult times.

SUFFERING IN SILENCE: Gender stereotypes, not wanting to increase men's stress and the wish to be a united community can stop people speaking out about family violence after a disaster.

SUFFERING IN SILENCE: Gender stereotypes, not wanting to increase men's stress and the wish to be a united community can stop people speaking out about family violence after a disaster.

Naturally the loss of homes, jobs or loved ones creates immense grief, stress and uncertainty on everyone affected.

AWARD WINNERS: Researchers Claire Zara and Debra Parkinson, of Women's Health Goulburn North East, with MP Michael Keenan, Susie Reid and Helen Riseborough.

AWARD WINNERS: Researchers Claire Zara and Debra Parkinson, of Women's Health Goulburn North East, with MP Michael Keenan, Susie Reid and Helen Riseborough.

Naturally it makes men beat their wives.

MAKING A STATEMENT: Marchers in Wodonga take part in Wednesday's White Ribbon Day event on Lincoln Causeway.

MAKING A STATEMENT: Marchers in Wodonga take part in Wednesday's White Ribbon Day event on Lincoln Causeway.

Wait, what?

With a high risk fire season already begun, Victoria’s Gender and Disaster Taskforce has warned of potential dangers beyond the flames. 

If women were speaking out about violence, they were tending to say 'Look, give him some time, you know, he's not himself, he's been through a lot'.

Debra Parkinson

In fact the taskforce’s existence points to a real but often overlooked aspect of widespread adversity – as the pressure rises, so does the level of domestic violence. 

A ground breaking study by two Women’s Health Goulburn North East researchers raised awareness of this issue in the wake of one of Australia’s worst events, the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires that killed 173 people.

Debra Parkinson and the late Claire Zara interviewed 30 women and 47 workers over the two years that followed the catastrophe.

“The findings are unmistakable – domestic violence increased after this disaster,” the pair reported. “Most workers and all 30 women spoke of increased community or domestic violence.”

Dr Parkinson said many men had been traumatised by the horrific things they had seen during and immediately after the fire. 

As time went on, other issues arose such as unemployment, homelessness, crowded temporary accommodation and bureaucracy.

“All the red tape that was involved in them either getting work in the reconstruction or rebuilding their own homes, that kind of thing,” she said.

The tension increased and men could become violent, even those who had never been so before.

Nobody is likely surprised by all this, given the scale of the tragedy, but perhaps therein lies the problem of all domestic violence – excuses come too readily to mind.

Dr Parkinson said a key finding of their study showed women kept quiet about violence after Black Saturday.

“That's because people were worried about the men,” she said.

“Their sympathies lay with the fact that these guys, a lot of them had been fantastic in the fires, even considered to be heroes in what they'd done.

“The other thing that it went to was presenting this idea of a resilient, cohesive community, pulling together.

“If women were speaking out about violence, they were tending to say 'Look, give him some time, you know, he's not himself, he's been through a lot'.

“The women went through all of that too ... we're not only expecting them to go through the disaster, but then put up with violence after.”

For some time Anna, not her real name, did put up with it.

On Black Saturday her beloved husband, a firefighter, stayed in an affected area, picking up survivors, finding those who hadn’t and barely escaping with his own life.

His experiences changed him completely – unable to cope and unwilling to seek help, he shut himself off from his wife and three children and the family relationships broke down.

“I saw it as my duty as a woman to suck it up and do what was best for the family and live through scary situations – he was never physically violent with me but he was sometimes very physically intimidating,” Anna said.

“To hold it together and to be there for better or for worse.”

Only when Anna felt her own mental health was suffering and realised her children could effectively lose both parents did she accept the marriage was over.

The couple made their separation formal less than a year after Black Saturday.

"They said that we were the 403rd couple to register a separation in the fire ground," Anna said, adding other marriage breakdowns since could still be attributed to Black Saturday.

"People's personalities, people's wants, needs and desires are changed so fundamentally by an experience like that sometimes even six years down the track when they've done absolutely everything they can, the relationship isn't tenable," she said.

In terms of domestic violence, Anna saw value in talking about the ways men and women react in a post-disaster world.

"And having those resources available upfront to let people know about what hyper-masculinity looks like and how it's going to affect the family, the roles that we fall into," she said.

"And understanding how those roles may not be appropriate for all people and we shouldn't be pushing them into it."

Dr Parkinson said rigid gender stereotypes did tend to strengthen after a disaster.

"The research suggested it was because people needed some comfort,” she said.

“This horrific thing had happened to them and they wanted to go back to a time when things were black and white and were more certain. 

“So it really went back to this time of man as the breadwinner, woman had to be home. 

"It was almost as if the gains that the women's sector and women had made in probably the last two decades of having domestic violence to be seen as real violence, not 'just a domestic' – that just went out the window after disaster."

Domestic violence liaison officer Senior Constable Alicia Langman, of Albury, said the research results fitted in with what she saw in her work.

"It certainly would, because it would come back to the financial stress and strain that would be placed on a family," she said.

"Whether insurance is going to pay out, the fact that they've lost everything, all that sort of stuff, it definitely could be a factor within domestic violence.

"A lot of factors affect how people behave and act, it's not a reason and it's not an excuse for it, it's just a factor towards it."

Wodonga Mayor Anna Speedie, who joined about 120 people at the Albury-Wodonga White Ribbon Day march on Wednesday emphasised the importance of not ignoring evidence of domestic violence.

"Seeing those things going on in your community can be incredibly confrontational but if we all step back, then we don't solve this issue,” she said.

White Ribbon ambassador Mark Byatt summed it up to the crowd who gathered for Wednesday’s march.

"I don't think we can make excuses any longer in communities, full stop, for these sort of acts," he said.

Dr Parkinson said initiatives like the Gender and Disaster Taskforce and a planned community service announcement would help raise awareness of the potential links between disaster and domestic violence.

"It just does worry me because people tend to say, 'Look we've got bigger things at hand, we've got a disaster, people have got to have a roof over their heads, just shut up about that now’," she said.

But perhaps with this week’s public events and the continuing 16 days of activism against gender abuse, the message will slowly sink in. Domestic violence is one of those bigger things.