The hidden disaster of the bushfires

The hidden disaster of the bushfires

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The period following a disaster is a complex landscape. People of all genders suffer grief and loss and are often traumatised by their experience.

Women experience increased violence after disasters like this summer’s terrifying bushfire crisis. The evidence which supports this link is strong. However, for many this violence remains a mere ‘hidden disaster’; silently afflicting women and communities long after the fire front has receded.

But what exactly causes this increased violence?

We spoke with gender and disaster expert Dr Debra Parkinson on why violence against women increases in the aftermath of bushfire disasters and what role the gendered drivers of violence have to play in the surge.

From a primary prevention standpoint, we know that there is no single cause of violence against women, but there are certain social conditions that predict, or ‘drive’ it. The evidence identifies four underpinning gendered drivers of this violence:

  • Condoning violence against women
  • Men’s control of decision making and limits to women’s independence
  • Stereotyped construction of masculinity and femininity
  • Male peer relations that emphasise aggression and disrespect towards women[1]

During times of extreme crisis, such as the recent bushfires, each of these expressions of gender inequality plays out in complex ways that further compound women and children’s vulnerability and experiences of abuse.

Gender roles, violence and bushfire disasters

Research undertaken by Dr Debra Parkinson after the 2009 Victorian bushfires showed gender roles and norms, particularly stereotypes of masculinity, become more rigid and reinforced both during and after disasters. This increases the risk of men using violence against women and their children.

According to Dr Parkinson, one example of this is how men are often mythologised as ‘heroes’ and ‘protectors’ in the post-disaster context, while women are expected to put their own needs last, behind those of husbands, partners and children – even to the extent of ‘putting up’ with family violence. The research concludes that women’s and children’s right to live free from violence is conditional upon the suffering men face post-disaster.

The result of communities reverting to traditional gender roles and looking to male “hero” figures for authority is that women become silenced and powerless. Meanwhile, men suffer under unrealistic expectations to live up to the idealistic stereotype of a strong and silent protector and provider. All of this combined creates a context and dynamic in which violence is more likely to occur.

Condoning of violence against women

In the aftermath of disasters such as bushfires, violence against women is also often minimised, downplayed or outright denied. This was the case during the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires. Despite evidence showing that family violence spiked in the aftermath of the fires, figures appeared to be recorded low at the time. Dr Parkinson said this was “probably because many women felt there was a taboo around revealing their partner was violent towards them”. Additionally, many of the bushfire relief case workers were not trained in family violence so did not know how to appropriately respond to disclosures of violence.

Violence was also frequently excused in the aftermath of Black Saturday. Members of the community, among them family, health, community and legal professionals, did not want to acknowledge that some people who had been held up as heroes were perpetrating violence against their loved ones. They chose to ignore it and look away. In other cases, men’s behaviour was excused as they were seen as the key victims of the fires who had their own trauma to deal with.

Men’s loss of control

The chaos and loss caused by disasters lead to a breakdown of social norms. Homelessness and unemployment may result, co-existing with the demands of recovery and reconstruction. Increased contact between families, sometimes in shared accommodation, increases tension, and loss of control can threaten men’s sense of their role as provider and protector[2]. This loss of control, accompanied by a breakdown of social norms and reverting to stereotypical gender roles, heightens the risk of family violence. Judy – a victim survivor interviewed by Dr Parkinson following the Black Saturday bushfires – describes the link between the loss of power her partner felt and the subsequent abuse she experienced:

“Thinking it through now, the core of abuse is to do with power and control over another person, and when this monster of a bushfire came through, I think his feelings of control were threatened. He had no control, he’d lost all of his possessions, but the one thing he thought he could control was me and our relationship.”

Keeping everyone safe during bushfire disaster management extends to recognising that men are vulnerable and need help, and being willing to hear women speak of emerging family violence. These are not matters to be swept aside as we revert to traditional gender roles – such as the strong, silent men and nurturing, sacrificing women narrative.

Now is the time to take stock and learn from the lessons of Black Saturday. Only then will women, their children and communities be able to safely recover and not be further victimised by another disaster – violence against women.

For more information on violence against women and bushfire disasters visit the Gender and Disaster Pod.

2 B. Phillips, Jenkins, & Enarson, 2009 cited in Parkinson D. The Way He Tells it, 2011


With the Safe and Equal monthly bulletin

Statement to Women’s Safety Ministers

Statement to Women’s Safety Ministers

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DVRCV stands with WESNET (Women's Services Network) Inc., Australian Women Against Violence Alliance (AWAVA), Fair Agenda and 68 family violence groups across Australia to request the actioning of five desperately needed changes to improve the safety of many women and children within weeks.

Read the full statement to our federal and state women’s safety ministers:

Dear Women’s Safety Ministers,

As specialists with years of experience working with and for women and children subjected to violence, we know that long-term, major reforms are needed over the coming months and years to achieve lasting improvements to safety and justice.

We also know there are key changes your governments can make immediately that will dramatically improve the safety of many women and children within weeks.

As well as committing to comprehensive reform to prevent all forms of violence against women, we urge you to action these five desperately needed changes at your meeting on Friday:

  1. Fully fund the specialist services that improve women’s safety, and hold men who use violence to account, including:
    The safety planning, risk assessment and wrap-around individual support provided by specialist women’s services,
    The safe at home programs and emergency accommodation services provided by specialist homelessness providers working specifically with victim-survivors of violence,
    The legal assistance and representation provided by specialist women’s legal services, Family Violence Prevention Legal Services, community legal centres, Aboriginal legal services, and Legal Aid,
    The perpetrator intervention, men’s behaviour change programs and fathering programs provided by accredited men’s behaviour change experts,
    The specialist and culturally-safe services that are best able to assist Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and women from migrant and refugee backgrounds,
    The disability advocacy and domestic violence services needed to support women with disabilities to overcome the barriers to achieving safety after violence from a partner, carer or in an institutional setting,
    The safe phones program, which has been found be effective in delivering victims/survivors greater technology safety,
    LGBTIQ+ services and LGBTIQ+-specific resources, programs and targeted community education campaigns,
    Supporting community-based services to lead the conversations needed to change the attitudes and behaviours that enable violence, including empowering bystanders.
  2. Remove the presumption of equal shared parental responsibility and emphasis on shared parenting in the Family Law Act 1975, to ensure a child’s safety and wellbeing are the key considerations, so that courts are determining the best parenting arrangement for their needs and circumstances.
  3. Initiate a standard screening, risk assessment and referral process nationally, to ensure public health, social and community services are trained to identify key safety risks early for people experiencing violence in their relationships, and able to refer them to the services that can help them achieve safety and recover.
  4. Agree to institute improved AVO standards to make clear what is expected of police, magistrates and courts to hold perpetrators accountable, and ensure women and children subjected to domestic and family violence are able to rely on these orders to achieve safety and justice.
  5. Ensure victims/survivors seeking help can access free translating and interpreting services, so that regardless of their disability, cultural or language background, or geographical location, any woman reaching out for help to build a safer future is able to access the assistance she needs.

As with all initiatives for improved community safety and wellbeing, these urgent steps must be taken in a way that responds to the factors that shape people’s experiences of violence and encounters with institutions. These can include: the ongoing impacts of colonisation, race, class, sexual orientation and gender identity, ethnicity, nationality, religion, dis/ability and age, as well as the community attitudes, geographical isolation and the poor connectivity experienced by women in remote, rural and regional areas.

Further to these five immediate interventions, we note that the national alliance tasked with bringing together organisations to develop solutions, Australian Women Against Violence Alliance (AWAVA), has presented comprehensive advice on the major long-term reforms needed including the Blueprint for Reform for women on temporary visas experiencing violence, and that Women’s Legal Services Australia has mapped out the steps required for Safety First in Family Law. These solutions will require meaningful and sustained investment. AWAVA, its members and allies stand ready to work with governments to design and implement these reforms together.

This national crisis cannot be solved overnight. But actioning these five changes will bring immediate and substantial improvement to the safety of many women and children currently at risk, and will save lives. We urge you to do your part.


National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women’s Alliance
Embolden – Alliance for Women’s Freedom, Equity and Respect (South Australian peak body for women’s domestic and family violence services)
Women’s Legal Services Queensland
Women’s Legal Services Tasmania
Ruby Gaea Darwin Centre Against Sexual Violence
Sexual Assault Support Service Tasmania
Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Women’s Legal Service North Queensland Inc.
Emma House Domestic Violence service
Women’s Council for Domestic and Family Violence Services WA
North Queensland Women’s Legal Service
Equality Rights Alliance
WESNET – The Women’s Services Network
Annie North Inc
Domestic Violence NSW
Women’s Legal Service NSW
economic Security4Women
Limestone Coast Family Violence Action Group
National Rural Women’s Coalition
CASA Forum – Victorian Centres Against Sexual Assault
Ending Violence Against Women Queensland
Seras Women’s Shelter Inc.
Mackay Women’s Services
Association of Women Educators
National Council of Single Mothers & their Children
YWCA Canberra
Women’s Safety NSW
Mitcham Family Violence Education and Support Service
Centre for Non-Violence
Eastern Region Domestic Violence Services Network Inc – Koolkuna
Communicare Women’s Support Services
Carnarvon Family Support Services
WRISC Family Violence Support Inc
Women’s Centre Far North Queensland
Migrant Women’s Support Program of Women’s Safety Services SA
Lucy Saw Centre Association Inc
Penrith Women’s Health Centre
Australasian Centre for Human Rights and Health
Macleod Accommodation Support Service Inc.
inTouch Multicultural Centre Against Family Violence
North Shore Women’s Benevolent Association Limited
Mid Coast Women’s Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Service
safe steps Family Violence Response Centre
Darwin Aboriginal & Islander Women’s Shelter
Harmony Alliance – Migrant and Refugee Women for Change
Accountability Matters Project
Domestic Violence Action Centre Toowoomba
Gold Coast Domestic Violence Prevention Centre
Domestic Violence Crisis Service Canberra
Immigrant Women’s Support Service
Sonshine Sanctuary Association
Beryl Women Inc.
Edon Place and Centre for Women & Co
Lou’s Place
Cairns Regional Domestic Violence Service
Women’s Information, Support and Housing in the North
Settlement Services International
Multicultural Centre for Women’s Health
Northern Territory Council of Social Service
Domestic Violence Victoria
Project Respect
Melaleuca Refugee Centre
Dawn House Inc
Western Women’s Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Service
Bramwell House (Salvation Army)
Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria
WASH House Inc.
Immigrant Women’s Speakout Association Inc.
Immigration Advice and Rights Centre
Australian Women’s Health Network
Centre Against Sexual Assault Central Victoria
Open Support
Women’s Legal Service (South Australia)
Family Violence Prevention Legal Services National Forum


With the Safe and Equal monthly bulletin