Violence against women and disaster: What is it?

When responding to disaster, there are some important things you can do to increase the safety of women and their children.

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In the aftermath of a disaster, violence against women and their children increases. Some women experience violence for the first time, while others experience an increase in violence. Violence against women includes sexual assault, domestic and family violence.

Violence against women in a disaster

When responding in a disaster context, your knowledge of sexual assault, domestic and family violence continues to apply. It can also be helpful to be aware of the particular risks that exist for women in a disaster situation.

Sexual assault is any sexual or sexualised act that makes a person feel uncomfortable, intimidated or frightened. It is behaviour that a person has not invited or chosen. Find out more about sexual assault. 

Domestic and family violence is a pattern of abusive behaviour in an intimate relationship or other type of family relationship where one person assumes a position of power over another and causes fear. Find out more about domestic and family violence .

Increased vulnerability

For women, disaster presents unique vulnerabilities.  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, and your role may be to help with incorporating these unique vulnerabilities into an emergency plan.

Some risks to consider:

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

Risk assessment and safety planning should take these additional vulnerabilities into consideration.

Responding in times of disaster

In times of disaster there are things you can do to increase the safety of women and their children experiencing violence. Support to disclose, screening, risk assessment and safety planning are core services you can offer women.Violence and disaster: how do I offer support contains more on delivering these core services. 

For many who survive, the events around the disaster remain raw and traumatic. Women may be experiencing trauma, and managing uncertain futures with responsibilities for the emotional welfare of children. 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 the man as “stressed”, “angry”, “drunk”, or that it “never happened before”
  • talking about his 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 her on account of the man’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 Support & Services map to contact a specialist sexual assault, family and domestic violence service in your area for help with safety planning or to make a referral.

This information on gender, violence and disaster is based on research and resources of the Gender and Disaster Pod, an initiative of Women’s Health Goulburn North East, Women’s Health In the North and Monash Injury Research Institute.  

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