Family and sexual violence and emergency events
There is evidence that there is an increase in family violence when there is an emergency event. An emergency event is an event, actual or imminent, which endangers or threatens to endanger life, property or the environment.
Emergency events, displacement and conflict place women and their children at increased risk of violence and abuse. In countries similar to Australia, family violence increases in the wake of emergency events (eg natural disasters).
During emergencies there is a heightened sense of instability, insecurity and fear, a loss of autonomy, and dependency on others for help. Emergency management centres can play a critical role in the response.
Victim-survivors of family and sexual violence can become displaced and removed from their support networks leaving them to be more vulnerable during these times. The stressful time of an emergency event can intensify existing gender inequalities, resulting in increases in gender-based violence in the home and the community.
An emergency event can change the severity and types of violence experienced by victim-survivors and can leave them more at risk for abuse, assault and exploitation.
Family and sexual violence after emergency events
Australian and international research shows a strong link between the increases in violence against women following emergency events. An emergency event can result in traumatic experiences, challenging our sense of self and the safety of our world. In the accordion below there is a number of areas that have been identified in relation to family and sexual violence after an emergency event.
Following an emergency event, there are a range of factors that lead to increased vulnerability. This includes grief, loss, trauma, homelessness, unemployment, families may be forced to spend more time together in crowded and/or unfamiliar environments, sense of loss of control, and increased alcohol and drug use.
Women experiencing family and sexual violence before an emergency event may face increasingly frequent and severe violence post-emergency event, when trauma, grief, financial stress, and loss of a home or employment may escalate their partner/ex-partner’s perpetration.
Following an emergency event, women and their children may also find themselves separated from friends, family and other protective networks – leaving them to be more vulnerable.
Australian research has indicated that family violence increased following the 2009 Victorian Bushfires and that women’s voices were effectively silenced.
- In the aftermath, a woman’s right to live free from violence is compromised as tolerance of violence against women can be linked to the level of suffering men face during and following emergency events.
- Workers involved in the 2009 Victorian Bushfire recovery spoke of both men and women self-medicating with alcohol to escape the pain of loss. Some women interviewed discussed how their male partners channelled their grief and distress into anger. The fires seemed to dismantle their partners’ capacity to control their own behaviour.
Men are frequently reluctant to seek help and are sometimes isolated from support services and social networks.
It is common for men to self-medicate with drugs and/or alcohol as a coping mechanism. Although not a cause of violence against women, the use of drugs and alcohol are associated with harmful behaviour to self and others.
Impact of COVID-19
Early evidence from the Australian experience demonstrates that the COVID-19 pandemic is having gendered impacts including, and in addition to, concerns regarding increasing incidence and severity of family violence. There are also significant consequences for women’s economic security, physical and mental health.
To reduce the spread of COVID-19 in Tasmania, the Tasmanian Government introduced several public health measures such as social distancing, isolation and quarantine, meaning families may be at home with someone who chooses to use violence.
COVID-19 does not cause, justify or excuse violent and abusive behaviour. However, isolation, financial insecurity, stress, concern, family disruptions, changes to roles and routines resulting from COVID-19 may compound or increase the risk, severity and frequency of violence.
Increase in violence against women after emergency events
Research indicates that violence against women increases in four main ways after emergency events:
- An increase in new violence – partners who haven’t been violent before the emergency event become violent.
- An intensification of pre-existing violence – partners who have been violent before becoming more violent.
- The common reluctance of women to report violence against them is intensified after an emergency event, as empathy sits with men who were ‘heroes’ responding to the event or who may be suffering as a result of their experience/impact the event has had on them.
- A reduction in normal supports – for example, victim-survivors who may have been able to seek assistance from neighbours, family and/or friends may no longer be able to do so, because of displacement or changes to housing.
Sexual violence against women is also known to increase during and following emergency events.
There are several factors contributing to this risk:
- Crowded evacuation and recovery centres may increase women’s and children’s interaction with opportunistic offenders
- Tension and stress are again known risk factors for perpetration
- An atmosphere of chaos in communities can be capitalised on by perpetrators – as it provides cover for their violence and acts as an additional barrier to victim-survivors reporting and response
If you or someone you know is impacted by family violence call the Safe at Home Family Violence Response and Referral Line on 1800 633 937.
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual violence call the Statewide Sexual Assault Crisis Line on 1800 697 877.
In an emergency, always call 000
To learn more about family and sexual violence in Tasmania and services available, please visit www.safefromviolence.tas.gov.au.