The Pixel Project is pleased to present a special guest “16 For 16” article from Gender And Disaster Australia.
Gender and Disaster Australia (GADAus) is Australia’s leading national organisation offering research, evidence-based education, training and resources to address and minimise the harmful impacts of gender stereotypes in disaster. Primarily funded by the federal Department of Social Services under the National Plan to End Violence Against Women and their Children, GADAus has demonstrated expertise in gender and disaster research, training and policy, contributing to improved and more inclusive responses to disasters across the country. Promoting an understanding of the role of gender in survivor responses to disaster — including increased family violence — GADAus works to embed these insights into emergency management practice.
This year, GADAus shares a list of 16 actions that individuals can take to end violence against women in disasters.
Everyone can act to prevent the harms of rigid gendered expectations in disasters and the “hidden disaster” of increased violence against women during and after disaster.
Traditional gender roles place expectations on men to “protect and provide” and on women to nurture and care for others, sometimes at the expense of their own safety and wellbeing.
Post-disaster communities struggle not only with relocation, reconstruction and finances, but with increased alcohol and drug abuse, greater prevalence of mental health problems and suicides, increased marriage/relationship breakdown, and increased violence against women and children.
In our research, women spoke of both increased and new domestic violence following disaster – and of men’s reluctance to seek help. Yet women were silenced and censured for speaking of men’s violence in the home. Their speaking out does not sit comfortably with the media focus on individual “heroes” and of resilient communities that pull together after disasters. Survivors spoke of feeling they had failed as men or mothers or wives.
Yet, ignoring men’s violence does not help them, or anyone.
Here are 16 actions you can take to end violence against women in disasters.
Written by Dr Debra Parkinson, Executive Director, Gender And Disaster (Australia)
Recommended Action #1: Understand that disasters are linked to an increase in men’s violence against women
Between 1993 and 2020 there have been 16 multi-country and 50 single-country studies published on gender-based violence, including the first Australian research into domestic violence and disaster published by GADAus (formerly The GAD Pod). These studies provide irrefutable evidence that gender-based violence increases after disaster. This issue can no longer be ignored.
Recommended Action #2: Listen to women when they speak of violence against them after disasters
It is difficult for women to speak of violence at the hands of their partner at any time for a variety of reasons. It is even harder during the aftermath of disasters, a time when women may also be concerned about reporting their psychologically fragile or suicidal partners to police. Response and support professionals working in disaster zones, many of whom are unlikely to have expertise in family violence work, may fail to characterise an incident as violence “out of respect” for suffering men. In our research, women frequently sought help with no positive outcome. It is vital to listen to women as a first step toward ending the violence.
Recommended Action #3: Refuse to collude with violent men – “Disaster is no excuse for domestic violence”
Women are frequently told that their needs are unimportant in the context of disaster recovery. Men can be excused for their violence as they are seen as “good men” or valuable community members who are now traumatised and suffering as a result of their disaster experience. Sometimes they are seen as “heroes” because of their actions in the disaster and in the community afterwards. It is important to refute this male privilege. Women have a right to live free from violence.
Recommended Action #4: Four questions to ask women so they can get help after disasters:
- ASK: “Are you safe at home?”
- NAME IT: “What you’ve just described to me is violence.”
- RESPOND: Give contact details of the local domestic violence service and police.
- FOLLOW UP: “Last time you spoke about your safety. I’d like to know how you are now.”
Recommended Action #5: Know the key helpline or local service contact details for help in your area
Crisis or support helplines and the kinds of domestic violence agencies in each area and country differ. Take the time to find out what they are in your area and have them ready to give to women. For example, in Australia, the nation-wide number is called 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) and 000 for police. A range of other helplines are available including for marginalised groups, First Nations people, LGBTIQA+ people, kids and men.
Recommended Action #6: Assist men to seek help after disasters
Men’s coping mechanisms after disaster tend to reflect and reinforce the “protector and provider” stereotype. They are likely to channel their energies into the practical tasks at hand and internalise their feelings and withdraw, turning instead to drugs or alcohol as a form of self-medication. Traditional gender roles often reinforce the image of men as tough and invincible which can discourage them from seeking help. Further, men may face career penalties for seeking psychological help, or lose status “as a man”. Men do talk about their disaster experiences – just ask them and give them an emotionally safe space to do so. This is important as disasters, alcohol abuse, mental health issues and suicide all increase after disasters.
Recommended Action #7: Reject notions of women as passive in disasters
“Gender” is often associated with “women” and “vulnerability”, yet women’s strength and heroism in protecting family and community during catastrophic events is rarely recognised or valued. Consider the term “passively sheltering” to which witnesses in the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission objected because it did not reflect the hours of women’s sheer hard work in increasingly desperate circumstances, or the term “evacuate late” which does not indicate the danger of driving children through the fire zone. Women’s supposed vulnerability has been used to support men’s “rights” as head of the household. Women do not owe men for “protection” and have a right be recognised for their own heroic actions.
Recommended Action #8: Stop expecting men to be heroes in disasters
At a public level, the rewards for enactment of masculinity that is strong, fearless and risk-taking are evident. Yet, in our research, men who were career firefighters told how loss of control in the catastrophic fires undermined their confidence and led to shame and remorse. Researchers write that: “Firefighters don’t want us to see heroes, because calling them heroes overstates their ability to control fires and downplays the long-term psychological impacts of fighting fires…” In the private domain, too, men were expected to be heroic. Women spoke of anger at their partners’ failure to live up to this male standard. Researchers have drawn a direct link between men’s perceived failure to live up to their own or society’s expectations and domestic violence (DV).
Idea For Action #9: Challenge notions that men “fail as a man” because of what they did or didn’t do in the disaster
Traditional notions of masculinity can have a negative impact on men. In hyper-masculine cultures, men can struggle to relate emotionally to others and can suffer “isolation, lack of trust, moral, spiritual and physical costs, and social and economic pressures”. Further, in catastrophic disaster, it is frequently impossible for men to meet the standards required of stereotypical manhood. Hyper-masculinity, or the acting out of exaggeratedly masculine characteristics, can emerge in response to these feelings of inadequacy. The atmosphere of impending disaster can incite some men to take unnecessary risks; post-disaster, other risk-taking behaviours can become common as men try to regain a sense of control and masculine identity, often resulting in harm to themselves and those around them.
Idea For Action #10: Challenge suggestions that women are letting down their whole community if they speak of men’s violence in the aftermath of disaster
The notion of resilience can be distorted to pressure people into pretending to “cope”. It can relieve governments of their responsibility to support disaster-affected people. Communities are often praised by visiting politicians and the media for their resilience, strength, capacity to recover and cohesiveness. This frequently leads to condemnation of survivors who aren’t coping, or who somehow “let their community down” by raising issues of conflict and violence within. It is not helpful to anyone to ignore men’s violence in the home. The first step in addressing increased violence after disaster is to name it. Including attention to VAW in disaster planning and recovery helps the whole community recover.
Idea For Action #11: Make your own disaster plan and challenge assumptions about who does what
Men often make decisions relating to risk without the necessary knowledge or capacity, placing women and their children at greater risk. A gendered lens over disaster planning means questioning why, if you’re a man, you assume you need to stay and defend your family home against disasters. A clear-eyed examination of the risks can lead to more logical allocation of tasks, better decisions, and fewer recriminations and regrets in disasters’ aftermath. The link to reducing violence against women is that men who felt they failed the “great test of their manhood” were more likely to try to regain a sense of control, sometimes through domestic violence.
Idea For Action #12: Expect your local police response to treat violence against women as equally important to other disaster-related work
Where resources are stretched to address primary disaster-related needs, there is a risk that violence against women is “overlooked” or minimised by support personnel, particularly where perpetrators are seen as “‘heroes”. Women who participated in our study were told by police to “give it some time,” that “he’s not himself,” and that “things will settle down” – and police did not follow their own Code of Conduct. Refute this notion that disaster-related work is more important than ending violence against women. Given the high rates of violence against women across the world, both are about saving lives.
Idea For Action #13: Check that local disaster plans overtly consider the “hidden disaster” of increased violence against women in the aftermath
Urge emergency managers to include domestic violence workers in recovery committees and as speakers at post-disaster community meetings. Ask if information about increased DV in disasters is part of emergency planning and response. Written information can include a postcard like ours at Gender and Disaster Australia. Or simply include the words “Disaster is no excuse for violence” with the local referral numbers of police and any domestic violence services and men’s services. Point out the need for this information.
Idea For Action #14: Check local emergency plans for attention to women’s safety from pre-existing domestic violence
Women experiencing violence in their relationships before disasters may face particular risks during and following a disaster. They may be unable to evacuate with their children, either because their partner refuses to allow it or because they are isolated or they have no access to transport. For women who are separated from a violent ex-partner, the disruption caused by disaster may expose them to renewed control or violence, including in evacuation centres. Men who have used violence against women and children may use the disaster as an excuse to come back into their lives, in some instances simply to gain access to disaster funds. Where feasible, check that local emergency plans provide for domestic violence emergency payments in addition to disaster payments.
Idea For Action #15: Offer help to women escaping the disaster with children
In evacuation centres, your help can be practical–just lending a hand with small children, for example–then moving on to having conversations. Research shows that women can have no other choice than to return to violent ex-partners if they are made homeless by disasters. If there are indications that women may not have a home to return to, have that “brave” conversation where you mention services available to help keep women safe from men’s violence, or other local options.
Action #16: Turn the “window of opportunity” that disasters offer into a way to end violence against women
The “window of opportunity” for change offered by catastrophic disaster mostly results in reinforcement of traditional gendered roles where men are expected to “protect and provide”, and women are expected to sacrifice and forgo employment and leadership roles in disaster recovery so they can, first and foremost, support their husband and children. This expectation is extended to putting up with violence for “the greater good”. There are two key actions for all of us:
- have women at every level of disaster planning, response and recovery
- uphold women and children’s right to live free from violence – even after disasters.
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