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Family violence risk after natural disasters

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Max Davies
Max Davies
Max is a journalist for the North Central Review. He joined the paper as a cadet journalist in 2021 and graduated from La Trobe University in 2023. He takes a keen interest in motorsport and the automotive industry.

By Max Davies

IT can be said that crises affect everyone in different ways, and while crises can range in severity from issues like a workplace closing to a serious bushfire, what happens behind closed doors often flies under the radar of the public.

Since the Black Saturday bushfires in 2009, there has been a rising awareness of the impacts of natural disasters on family violence in affected areas, as well as the role of disasters in exacerbating the issue of gender inequality in Australian communities.

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Thanks to ongoing research by organisations such as Women’s Health Goulburn North East, it is more widely known that there is a correlation between disasters and an increase in reports of family violence.

While disasters do not cause family violence, they compound underlying inequalities in gender, economy, and disability.

Women’s Health Goulburn North East chief executive Amanda Kelly said family violence could occur in any community, with natural disasters often a catalyst for spikes in cases.

“We know from the international evidence that violence against women is driven by pervasive gender inequality, which is sustained through the structures, norms and practices that lead to economic, social and political power and resources being unfairly distributed between men and women,” she said.

“This inequity, particularly around political power and resources, exists right across our communities and because of this you will find that family violence exists in every part of our culture, not just those where people are perceived to be disadvantaged.”

According to Gender and Disaster Australia, traumatic experiences can contribute to family violence, with such events sometimes used as justification for abusive or violent behaviour.

Disadvantage and inequality can lie where perceived roles are assigned, which historically has meant more men fought fires – in the case of Black Saturday – while women were at home protecting and caring for children.

Participants in research by Women’s Health Goulburn North East stated they were told by their male partners ‘I nearly died, so I should be able to do whatever I want’ after fighting fires during Black Saturday, despite women having survived the fires with their children in their own right.

The research also suggested men were often reluctant to seek counselling to help deal with traumatic experiences like bushfires or floods.

“We need to decrease the inequalities that exist in the first place and in the meantime, we also need to ensure that we are not reinforcing outdated gender norms during and after disasters,” Ms Kelly said.

“This can take the form of excusing violence or aggression because ‘that’s just how men behave’ or expecting women to shoulder all of the burden of supporting the family to recover.”

According to the Crime Statistics Agency, family incidents reported by police increased by 6.7 per cent – from 82,651 in 2018-19 to 88,124 in 2019-20, with the latter coinciding with the Black Summer bushfires.

A family incident is defined as a situation in which police attended and completed a risk assessment and risk management report.

It was also recorded that a child or children were present at almost 30 per cent of family violence incidents across Victoria in the 2019-2020 financial year.

Ms Kelly said instances of family violence during natural disasters could be reduced through a variety of methods, including interconnected community support services for those in need.

“We can make positive changes to the way we behave during and after disasters by asking women if they feel safe, and supporting them to access appropriate services if they need them,” she said.

“We can also make sure women are included in the decision-making in response and recovery – they often have networks and deep community knowledge that can be used for the benefit of the whole community. This keeps them connected and helps to reduce isolation and provides community support if needed.

“We can also investigate ways of supporting men in the aftermath of a disaster while knowing that they are often reluctant to seek formal counselling.”

When referring to the impact of natural disasters on family violence, experts said disasters and potentially traumatic events were not limited to unforeseen circumstances that affected a significant number of people such as Black Saturday, Black Summer, severe weather and floods, or even the COVID-19 pandemic.

Events that can affect family violence often also include localised events like a workplace closing, losing a job, or a tragedy in a town or community.

Support services are available and anyone struggling with the aftermath of a traumatic event or experiencing family violence is encouraged to reach out.

If you or anyone you know is experiencing family violence or is struggling with a traumatic event. Helplines are published on page 15.

For more information and to view reports compiled by Women’s Health Goulburn North East, visit www.genderanddisaster.com.au/
info-hub/research-resources
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