Violence and disaster: How do I provide support?

There are things you can do to increase the safety of women and their children experiencing violence during a disaster.


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At times of disaster, violence against women increases. Knowing how to talk to clients about their experiences of violence after disaster, to understand the indicators of serious risk and how to increase safety, allows you to respond in ways that fit in with your field of expertise. As a starting point, make sure you are informed about sexual assault, domestic and family violence.

When supporting a woman it can be valuable to consider that:

  • You may be the first person  she talks to about violence
  • This may be the first time she has spoken about pre-existing violence
  • Violence may have increased in severity in the wake of the disaster
  • It may be the first time she has experienced violence
  • She may feel disloyal because she feels (or is told) she is not supporting her husband or partner well enough in this difficult time
  • She may be traumatised

 

What you can do

Two important principles for working with women and their children experiencing the impacts of sexual assault, domestic and family violence are:

Safety – Is what I am doing making it safer for the person experiencing sexual assault, domestic or family violence?

Holding perpetrators responsible – Is what I’m doing sending a clear message that the perpetrator is responsible and accountable for their violence, not the person who experiences it? This is the case even if the perpetrator is suffering from his experiences during or after the disaster.  Doing nothing out of misplaced respect for men is harmful to everyone.

Many of the steps that can be taken by workers to encourage people to talk about sexual assault, domestic and family violence, to ensure there are no immediate serious risks and to help them be safer are simple and do not require specialist knowledge.

Good practice responses

For workers and professionals, there are three basic steps to responding effectively to sexual assault, 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. If you do not respond to sexual assault, domestic or family violence often, our risk assessment and safety planning framework is a good place to start. Specialist sexual assault, domestic and family violence services are also there to assist you in your support of women experiencing violence. The Services & support map helps with locating the closest relevant service.

For more information see our Violence and Disaster Good Practice Principles

Disclosure

Disclosure requires trust. Quite often, initial disclosure of sexual assault, domestic or family violence is not to specialist counsellors or service providers. It may be to a health professional, counsellor or emergency worker. It could be a teacher or someone else with whom the client already has a trusting relationship.

In a disaster situation there may be particular reasons a woman is hesitant to disclose that she has experienced violence. For example:

  •  The man may be in control of the family emergency plan and she may feel she and her children are at greater risk without him
  •  If a man has acted heroically in the eyes of the community a woman may feel her reports of violent behaviour will not be believed
  • She may be discouraged from disclosing by family, friends or a community excusing the man’s behaviour on account of stress or trauma
  • Lack of childcare and transport, closure of schools, and potential homelessness may limit her options for leaving the abusive relationship

Disclosure is a very big step and if a person is not believed and supported, or if they don’t get the help they need, they may be hesitant to seek help again. 

Risk assessment

Risk assessment is a structured and systematic approach to understanding and assessing risk. It is linked to safety planning and should be used when violence is suspected or reported.

In a disaster situation women and their children will likely be facing a range of risks in addition to any risk of sexual assault, domestic or family violence. 

For example:

  • Her access to transport, services, finances, childcare, important documents and even food and shelter, may be restricted due to the disaster or a man’s response to it
  • Family, friends and neighbours who are ordinarily able to provide support may be busy with their own disaster response activities
  • There may be extra challenges in enforcing intervention orders in the face of a disaster

Risk assessment means making a professional judgement about the risk factors that are present combined with the woman’s assessment of risk, to determine:

  • the likelihood of future violence, and
  • the dangerousness, or potential lethality, of future violence 

A risk framework coordinates the implementation of risk assessment and safety planning. We recommend you read the Risk Assessment Framework and Tools page and follow the links to Risk Assessment. Implementing these steps develops good practice in working with clients experiencing domestic or family violence.

Safety planning

Safety planning is important for any woman affected by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, but becomes increasingly important in times of disaster, when risks to women and their children increase.

Start by listening. The woman is an expert on her situation. First listen for, and ask questions about, what has been happening. This will help you understand the risks. Find out what she already does to increase safety, and use this as a basis for helping her to think about what else might increase her safety. A checklist can provide a few ideas about how to develop the plan but not all of these ideas will be relevant. 

Keep in mind that there may be multiple perpetrators and other individual needs that influence the plan. 

Remember your job is not to judge or make decisions. ‘Just leaving’ is not always a safe option. We know that leaving is the time of greatest risk to life and safety. Work with the woman to build a plan that works for her.

Here are a few important things to remember when assisting a woman with safety planning:

  • You may need to use expert services to assist you. If a woman wants these services, refer to experts in the domestic violence, legal, cultural and ongoing support fields. Check here for supporst and services, or phone 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732.
  • If children are involved, you may find our video on Keeping Kids Safe helpful.
  • You may have mandatory reporting responsibilities if children are at risk of harm.
  • A safety plan can be part of building a trust relationship. This relationship may be the most important resource for victim/survivors.

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 those workers have undertaken Risk Assessment and Safety Planning training (or similar) to identify an respond effectively
  • Establishing methods for compiling accurate statistic, for example, a tick box in data collection forms.
  • Including specialist sexual assault, domestic and family violence 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. Understanding vicarious trauma and looking after yourself at work contain informaiton on working with trauma and resilience. 1800RESPECT counselling is also available for workers and professionals. Call 1800 737 732 to speak with a trained counsellor.

 

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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