We know domestic abuse increases after natural disasters – we can lessen its impact through good preparation
We know domestic abuse increases after natural disasters – we can lessen its impact through good preparation
No wrong door
After a natural disaster – be it a flood, bushfire, cyclone or drought – a massive response is required from governments at all levels, the private sector, communities and individuals. Often forgotten in this response is the risk of an increase in domestic and family abuse. This evidence must trigger a stronger response from government and policy makers.
There is evidence that in the wake of disasters abuse may intensify over both the short and long term. Where abuse was not previously present, the stress of a natural disaster may be a contributing factor for abuse to develop within families.
After the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria, women in areas that were severely impacted by the fires were over-represented in reports of domestic abuse. Following Cyclone Yasi in Queensland in 2011, there was an increase in psychological abuse such as coercive control, with refugee and First Nations women particularly vulnerable. Research from New Zealand and the United States provides similar evidence. Many of these studies documented an increase in the number of women seeking support, even if the increase did not manifest in increased police reports.
While the physical, psychological and social impact on survivors is significant, so too is the economic impact: the estimated intangible costs of family abuse were $990 million from the 2009 Victorian bushfires and $720 million from the 2010-11 Queensland floods.
Natural disasters are not the cause of domestic and family abuse but create conditions that generate enormous stress on individuals and families. It is these stressors that increase the risk of family and domestic abuse and its frequency and severity.
- limitations on travel imposed by disaster conditions
- homelessness, limited alternative accommodation, unemployment and loss of belongings
- trauma, grief and loss
- increased alcohol and drug use
- challenges to the socially constructed traditional role for men as the provider and protector of the family and threats to the partner’s sense of control and power over the situation
- pressure from family members, friends, police and in some cases, health care professionals to maintain an image of men as heroes and the community as well-connected in the recovery period
- separation from social support systems including family, friends and services
- pre-existing lower levels of access to support services in regional, rural or remote areas.
Now the challenge for government agencies is to translate this strong foundation of evidence into an effective policy response. The issue will become more acute as climate change increases the frequency and intensity of natural disasters. Without action, the disruption and disadvantage caused by natural disasters will be deepened for many families, compounding their vulnerability and lengthening their recovery.
From our work designing and evaluating effective responses to natural disasters and domestic and family abuse, we know a systems view is the most effective starting point – one that brings together stakeholders responding to domestic and family abuse and natural disasters to share learnings, build a collective understanding and increase alignment to support better outcomes for survivors.
Stronger connections across the response system can support survivors
Disaster response and recovery is high stress, time sensitive and complex. No single organisation or agency can be expected to respond to everything. Given police and other emergency services have limited capacity to take on more work in the aftermath of a natural disaster, establishing connections between responders before a disaster is vital. Such connections facilitate effective recognition of the issue and referrals to appropriate service and mean that families are more likely to receive the assistance they need.
A system perspective in preparing for and responding to natural disasters means every stakeholder draws on their capability and capacity, while remaining connected to the broader system and understanding how others are responding. This supports responders to identify risks or opportunities for early intervention.
One element of disaster mitigation is to create an environment where individuals are less likely to experience compounding trauma, because the connections and capabilities to respond are already in place. While addressing the interaction between domestic and family abuse and natural disasters will always be challenging, a layer of complexity is removed when connections are made between service providers and levels of government before we are in the phase of an active disaster response. We know already that post-disaster spending is significant – 97 percent of disaster funding is spent on recovery. Increasing investment in mitigation can limit the impact of natural disasters and provide a better, more streamlined experience for survivors.
Trauma-informed engagement and the inclusion of all stakeholders in designing response systems are critical
To adopt this systems perspective and create strong connections between responders, co-design is essential. It is likely that some solutions for domestic and family abuse triggered by natural disasters may look different to those that are not. The precise needs can most effectively be understood through co-design.
Co-design draws on survivors’ lived experiences through trauma-informed engagement, understanding their behaviours, emotions, activities, needs and motivations to ensure that solutions are designed to meet their needs
This approach recognises the complexity of the challenges faced by survivors who experienced domestic abuse after the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires. One woman, identified as Judy, told the ABC a decade later she struggled with “a feeling that all the other stuff happening was so much bigger – trying to cope with settling into a new place, getting what you needed to live … there were a number of things that drew my focus away from the intensity of what was happening”.
From our work on system design, emergency management and combatting domestic and family abuse, we have identified three principles for overcoming challenges and realising opportunities in this difficult space:
- Embrace a systems mindset. Looking at the bigger picture and considering all interactions and relationships between agencies, service providers and communities means the system has stronger linkages and can more effectively respond to family and domestic abuse arising in communities experiencing disasters.
- Working in partnership with local communities and organisations. By recognising change can only happen with the will and capabilities of multiple stakeholders, the response will be strengthened through flow-on partnerships and collaborative forums that both build connections and share knowledge.
- Prepare for long term engagement and flexibility. Key players should be willing to invest in the capability, development and collaboration needed to create the ideal future state system. Changing systems takes time and the path forward may shift along the way. Flexibility, adaptation and evaluation is essential to ensure ongoing system success.
An interconnected systems approach means ‘no wrong door’ for survivors
Interconnected services allow for a person-centred perspective, where the system is conceptualised with the individual at the centre so there is ‘no wrong door’ to access services. Additionally, a systems-based approach will increase the capability of responders in a disaster situation to identify risk relating to domestic abuse and offer appropriate services early. This approach is particularly important in regional and remote areas where many disasters impact most heavily, and where access to the service system is hampered by distance and service capacity.
This systems approach for addressing domestic and family abuse following natural disasters will bring several benefits. It will:
- build a shared understanding in the emergency management sector, including staff and volunteers, of the risks of domestic and family abuse following a natural disaster, warning signs and current systems and services in the domestic and family abuse sector for early intervention and referral
- increase alignment, coordination and collaboration between sectors to support access to services for survivors
- ensure plans to mitigate family and domestic abuse, and natural disasters, consider the impact of the other
- provide effective leadership and governance through opportunities for coordination, strong capability, a commitment to oversight and a shared vision for the system.
In our experience the benefits will deliver faster recovery times for individuals and families, and a strengthening of the family and domestic abuse response networks.
The time to act is now
As those who work in the sector know, the best time to act is before disaster strikes. Agencies involved need to create new relationships across the family and domestic abuse, and natural disaster arenas, put their heads together and make plans, and then learn lessons that emerge from each natural disaster.
With goodwill and resources, as well as some frameworks and methodology to guide thinking, a better outcome is possible. As natural disasters continue to increase in intensity and frequency, we have an opportunity to act early and act now to prevent compounding trauma and create significant change for our communities.
Get in touch to explore how we can support you to prevent family and domestic abuse after natural disasters.
Published on 15 March 2023.
 We use the term ”abuse”, rather than “violence”, to reflect the broad and complex nature of abuse, including physical, sexual, emotional, economic or psychological actions. The terms “abuse” and “violence” are often used interchangeably. See United Nations, What Is Domestic Abuse?, 2023.
 M Rezaeian, The association between natural disasters and violence: A systematic review of the literature and a call for more epidemiological studies, 2013. Journal of Research in Medical Sciences.
 R Molyneaux, L Gibbs, R Bryant, C Humphreys, K Hegarty, C Kellett, D Forbes, Interpersonal violence and mental health outcomes following disaster, 2019. BJPsych Open, 6(1).
 K James, J Breckenridge, R Braaf, I Barrett Meyering, Responding to Domestic Violence in the Wake of Disasters: Exploring the Workers’ Perceptions of the Effects of Cyclone Yasi on Women, 2014. Humanitarian Solutions in the 21st Century.
 New Zealand police reported a 53 per cent rise in domestic abuse after the Canterbury earthquake of 2011, and studies in the United States identified a 98 per cent increase in physical victimisation of women after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (D Parkinson, C Zara, The hidden disaster: domestic violence in the aftermath of natural disaster, 2013. Australian Journal of Emergency Management, 28).
 Intangible costs are defined as the direct and indirect damages that cannot be easily priced such as death and injury, impacts on health and wellbeing, and community connectedness. See Deloitte, The economic cost of the social impact of natural disasters, 2015. Australian Business Roundtable for Disaster Resilience & Safer Communities.
 D Parkinson, C Zara, The hidden disaster: domestic violence in the aftermath of natural disaster, 2013.
 M Campo, S Tayton, Domestic and family violence in regional, rural and remote communities, 2015. Australian Institute of Family Studies.
 H Gleeson, A new bushfire crisis is emerging as experts brace for an imminent surge in domestic violence, 24 February 2020, ABC News.