Australia – Rampant Bush Fires – The Gender Lens
Date: January 23, 2020
The start of this year has been a challenging time for people and communities all over Australia. As this catastrophic bushfire season continues, women and their children are facing multiply layered threats to their safety, as unfolding disaster contributes to an increased risk of domestic, family and sexual violence.
ANROWS acknowledges that the loss felt during this period may be acutely difficult for First Nations people who are witnessing the catastrophic loss of Country, which is inextricably tied to their cultural lives and livelihoods.
It’s crucial that we keep these issues front of mind when engaging with individuals and communities affected by fire.
Why violence increases during bushfires
Summer is already a time of increased risk of violence. Research suggests that incidents of intimate partner violence, including femicide, increase during and in the days following heatwaves over 34°C. This year, the risk is exacerbated by the ways that disaster increases stressors and plays into existing gender stereotypes.
Women experiencing DFV before the fires may face increasingly frequent and severe violence post-disaster, when trauma, grief, financial stress, and loss of a home or employment may escalate their partner’s perpetration. Women and their children may also find themselves separated from family, friends and other protective networks.
Sexual violence is also known to increase during disasters. There are several factors contributing to this risk: crowded evacuation and recovery spaces may increase women’s and children’s interaction with opportunistic offenders; tension and stress is again a known risk factor for perpetration; and an atmosphere of chaos in communities can be capitalised on by abusers, as it provides cover for their violence and acts as an additional barrier to victims’/survivors’ reporting and response.
There are also increased barriers to accessing help. Women may feel pressure not to report violence during and after disasters, believing that resources are too stretched and that “other people’s needs are greater than mine”. Evidence suggests that some service providers, including police, psychologists and community workers, may encourage women to tolerate violence until things “settle down”. Community and even family members may also perceive violence during disasters as excusable “if it results from temporary anger or results in genuine regret”, and tell women they are over-reacting or “not caring well enough for their men”. This can be exacerbated if the perpetrator is seen as a hero during the fires.
During disasters, people experiencing domestic, family or sexual violence who have additional marginalisations – including being isolated, experiencing homelessness, having disability, using drugs and/or alcohol, being culturally or linguistically diverse, or being LGBTQI+ – may be more vulnerable to violence and face additional barriers to accessing assistance.
HELPING AFFECTED COMMUNITIES
For community workers
The evidence on increased violence during and after disasters needs to be integrated into emergency management frameworks and approaches. If you work in a community-facing role with those affected by the fires, there are resources available to help you apply a gender lens to your work, and keep the possibility of increased gendered violence front of mind.
Women and Disaster, from Women’s Health Goulburn North East, offers a list of practical ways to support women affected by disaster, as well as a Checklist to Keep Women and Children Safe after Natural Disasters. The resources from the Gender & Disaster Pod (an initiative of Women’s Health Goulburn North East, Women’s Health In the North and the Monash University Disaster Resilience Initiative) include a quick fact sheet on How to ask whether someone is experiencing violence during a disaster, which can be easily integrated into other community response roles.
HELPING AFFECTED COMMUNITIES
For friends and family
There are also things you can do to improve the safety of loved ones and other people affected by the bushfire crisis.
If you need support following violence, or know someone who does, call the Sexual Assault & Domestic Violence National Help Line, 1800 Respect (1800 737 732) or contact your state-based DV service:
ACT: Domestic Violence Crisis Service (02 6280 0900)
NSW: Domestic Violence Line (1800 656 463)
Qld: DVConnect (1800 811 811)
SA: Domestic Violence Crisis Line (1800 800 098)
Tas: Family Violence Counselling and Support Service (1800 608 122; 9am–midnight weekdays, 4pm–midnight weekends & public holidays)
Vic: Safe Steps (1800 015 188)
WA: Women’s Domestic Violence Helpline (1800 007 339)
Using a gender lens to improve fire preparations
Using a gendered lens is important when making a bushfire survival plan. Research following the 2009 Victorian Black Saturday fires showed that without a very clear plan, men and women tended to fall into gendered roles—with men as ‘protectors’ and women as ‘nurturers’. Gendered expectations can limit the effectiveness of disaster planning.
Interviews with women who had been impacted by the fires indicated that it’s important for us to imagine the varied roles that both women and men might need to play. Women may be alone or cut off from communication, men may be vulnerable and in need of help. Women may be responsible for making decisions about how to defend a home, or choosing an evacuation route.
One respondent, Sophie, explained that her partner (an RFS volunteer) had always promised to come home if their house was under threat. This implicitly gendered fire plan meant that even when her street was evacuating, Sophie stayed, waiting for him to arrive. “Steve and I have never spoken about if this happened… My fire plan was him.”
By helping people purposefully look beyond gendered expectations, consider the evidence and base their decisions on real-world threats and options, a gender analysis improves the effectiveness of emergency management. The Gender and Disaster Pod offers valuable resources on how to do this, including this useful tool to guide gender-informed conversations when making a family fire plan.