Skip to Content

Violence in times of disaster

  • In the aftermath of a disaster, violence against women and their children increases
  • When responding in a disaster context, your knowledge of sexual, domestic and family violence continues to apply
  • It is also helpful to be aware of the particular risks that exist for women in a disaster situation
  • If you do not respond to sexual, domestic or family violence often, our introduction to responding page is a good place to start

Understanding risk

Disaster presents unique vulnerabilities when it comes to domestic and family violence.  If a violent family member or intimate partner controls emergency plans and survival essentials, risk increases dramatically. It is vital that women have an emergency plan for themselves and their children. One of your roles may be to help with incorporating these unique risks into an emergency plan.

Some things that can increase risk for women in disaster affected areas include being:

  • Prevented from evacuating due to domestic and family violence
  • Blocked from accessing survival essentials: transport, water, heat, finances, emergency plans, support services or important documents
  • Brought back in contact with a violent ex-partner in the chaos of the disaster, for example at an evacuation centre or community hub
  • Forced to take unnecessary risks with personal safety
  • Forced to exchange sex for necessities like food water or shelter
  • Impacted by the challenges of enforcing protection orders in a disaster-affected environment
  • Threatened by the return of someone who has been violent in the past, as they take advantage of vulnerabilities resulting from the disaster, or even take grant money
  • Dependent on a partner who is away from the home and controls the family’s emergency plan
  • Impacted by the limitations and pressures created by sudden homelessness that may be brought on by the disaster

Responding effectively

  • If you don't respond to sexual, domestic or family violence often, our Introduction to responding page is a good place to start
  • In times of disaster there are things you can do to increase the safety of people experiencing violence
  • Being aware that women are at increased risk of violence before, during and after a disaster is an important first step

Responding in times of disaster

Knowing how to talk to people about their experiences of violence in times of disaster allows you to respond in ways that fit in with your field of expertise. This includes understanding the signs of serious risk and how to increase safety. As a starting point, make sure you are informed about sexual assault and domestic and family violence.

When supporting someone it can be valuable to consider that:

  • You may be the first person they talk to about violence
  • This may be the first time they have spoken about pre-existing violence
  • Violence may have increased in severity in the wake of the disaster
  • It may be the first time they have experienced violence
  • They may feel disloyal because they feel (or are told) they are not supporting their partner well enough in this difficult time
  • They may be traumatised

How to respond effectively

For many who survive, the events around the disaster remain raw and traumatic. Women may be experiencing trauma. They may be managing uncertain futures with responsibilities for the welfare of others. At this time, women may be receiving unsupportive messages from family, friends or the community. It is important not to reinforce these messages.

The following are examples of poor responses:

  • Excuses being made for an abusive person as 'stressed', 'angry', 'drunk', or that it 'never happened before'
  • Talking about someone's heroic actions as though they excuse or justify violent behaviour
  • Suggesting that there are bigger problems to deal with right now or that other people have it much worse
  • Giving a sense that people are too busy, that now is not the time
  • Discouraging someone from making a complaint on account of an abusive person's perceived vulnerability or fragility in the aftermath

Good practice in responding at times of disaster: 

  • Be aware that women are at increased risk of violence before, during and after a disaster
  • Conduct screening, risk assessment and safety planning in your everyday practice
  • Include questions about safety and violence in your service intake form
  • Clearly state that disaster is no excuse for sexual assault, domestic or family violence
  • Know the relevant local specialist services that can assist you in supporting women experiencing the impacts of violence and refer
  • Join emergency management planning groups in times when disaster is not present to ensure the structures for disaster response and recovery include attention to violence against women, including data collection

You may need support to provide good responses to women experiencing, or at risk of, violence. Use our Service directory to contact a specialist sexual, domestic and family violence service in your area for help with safety planning or to make a referral.

Good practice responses

  • If you don't respond to sexual, domestic or family violence often, our Introduction to responding page is a good place to start
  • For those with the relevant training there are three basic steps to responding effectively to domestic and family violence, these continue to apply in a disaster situation
  • There are also things you can do to improve your organisation's response to domestic and family violence in times of disaster
  • For more information visit the Gender and Disaster Pod


Three steps for effective response

For workers and professionals with the relevant training, there are three basic steps to responding effectively to sexual, domestic and family violence:

  1. Encourage and support disclosure (screening) 
  2. Identify dangers (risk assessment)
  3. Work with the client to enhance their safety (safety planning)

These steps can be adapted to individual workplaces and should be implemented together.

Organisational responses

To improve your organisation's response during times of disaster consider implementing the recommendations made by the Gender and Disaster Pod.

These include:

  • Conducting a gender and disaster audit of your service
  • Ensuring workers in your service have undertaken Risk Assessment and Safety Planning training (or similar) to identify and respond effectively
  • Establishing methods for compiling accurate statistics, for example, a tick box in data collection forms
  • Including specialist sexual assault, domestic and family violence, and other relevant services in disaster response and recovery planning bodies

For more information, ideas and resources on planning and responding to violence against women in times of disaster, visit the Gender and Disaster Pod

Vicarious trauma and resilience

Helping and supporting others through disaster can be rewarding, it can also be demanding. When working with people experiencing the impacts of disaster, your own health is important. Our work-induced stress and trauma pages contain information on working with trauma and resilience. 1800RESPECT counselling is also available for workers and professionals. Contact 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or through online chat to speak with a trained counsellor.