ThesisPDF Available

Women’s experience of violence in the aftermath of the Black Saturday bushfires


Abstract and Figures

This thesis documents the first Australian research to interview women about their experiences of domestic violence after catastrophic disaster. As such research is rare in developed countries, it addresses a gap in the disaster literature. Interviews with 30 women in two shires in Victoria confirmed that domestic violence increased following the Black Saturday bushfires on 7th February, 2009. The scant research that exists internationally indicates that not only is the notion of ‘women and children first’ a myth, but that women are disproportionally affected by disasters primarily as a result of their poverty relative to men and prescribed gender roles. This research found that women experiencing increased male violence were silenced in preference of supporting suffering men – men who had been heroes in the fires or were traumatised or unemployed as a result of the disaster. The silencing was evident in the lack of statistics on domestic violence in the aftermath of Black Saturday, the neglect of this issue in recovery and reconstruction operations, and the responses to women’s reports of violence against them by legal, community and health professionals. Three broad explanations for increased domestic violence after Black Saturday are identified – drawn from empirical findings from the field and the research literature. Theoretical concepts from two disparate fields – sacrifice and male privilege – help to explain a key finding that women’s right to live free from violence is conditional. Indeed, the aftermath of Black Saturday presents Australians with the opportunity to see how deeply embedded misogyny is and how fragile our attempts to criminalise domestic violence and hold violent men accountable for their actions. The post-disaster period – characterised as it is by men in uniforms on the ground working, saving, rescuing and restoring; powerful imagery about the role of wives and mothers; increased violence by men; mandatory care-loads for women; and the suffering of good men – presents fertile ground for the fortification of male hegemony. Yet, post-disaster change does not have to be regressive, reinstating and reinforcing the traditional inequitable structure – a structure that has high costs for men and women. An emergency management response to disaster that has embedded gender equity at all levels, together with education of communities on the contribution of strict gender roles to suffering in disaster’s aftermath, could exemplify and hasten a more equal society where men’s violence against women is rare.
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Women’s experience of violence in the aftermath of
the Black Saturday bushfires
Debra Parkinson
B.A., Deakin University, Australia (1985)
B.Litt (Hons), Deakin University, Australia (1994)
M.A. (Hons), Monash University, Australia (2000)
A Thesis Submitted in Fulfilment of the Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy
School of Social Sciences
Faculty of Arts
Monash University
November 2014
p. 36, footnote at end of paragraph 2: The theory of sacrifice is exemplified and
contextualised in the story of Jesus Christ (The Holy Bible: King James Version, 1769). This
example assists in defining the concept of ‘scapegoats’ and clarifies the components of
sacrifice as theorised by Girard (2005) and others (see for example, Keenan, 2005; Reineke,
1997; Weir, 1995). In considering a gendered analysis, the bible narrative demanded that
Jesus Christ be a man, as a woman of that time and place would have been prohibited from
taking the leadership role he took. Although aspects of the New Testament foreground
women (such as resurrection appearances to women first, and the roles of his mother,
Mary, and the prostitute, Mary Magdalene), the authors of the gospels were men of their
time, and translations over two millennia continue to interpret the bible through the lens of
patriarchal men and cultures. The result is that the story of Jesus Christ is a male construct
and his is the sacrifice that is epitomised above that of the women who populate the New
Testament. Even though Jesus Christ is portrayed as advocating for women, the women’s
voices themselves are absent.
p. 71, Map 3 caption: The stars indicate three towns that were part of a project entitled,
‘Advancing Country Towns’. Although this project has no relevance to this thesis, the map
was the best available to indicate the location of towns mentioned in the thesis.
Abstract ................................................................................................................................. 5
Declaration ............................................................................................................................ 6
Acknowledgements ............................................................................................................... 7
Dedication ............................................................................................................................. 9
Acronyms .............................................................................................................................. 10
Definitions ............................................................................................................................. 11
Conventions adopted in the thesis .............................................................................................. 12
1: Introduction ...................................................................................................................... 13
Context ............................................................................................................................................ 13
Background ...................................................................................................................................... 14
Structure of the thesis ..................................................................................................................... 16
Significance of the study .................................................................................................................. 18
2: Literature review on women and disasters ...................................................................... 22
Introduction ..................................................................................................................................... 22
Gender and society .......................................................................................................................... 23
Women marginalised in disaster management ........................................................................... 25
Theories of gender construction learning masculinity and femininity ......................................... 26
Socially constructed gender inequity .......................................................................................... 29
Theories of sacrifice ......................................................................................................................... 35
Women as scapegoats ................................................................................................................. 38
Renegotiating gender boundaries in disaster .............................................................................. 39
No windfall for women in disaster .............................................................................................. 41
Gender and violence ........................................................................................................................ 43
Gender and disaster ........................................................................................................................ 46
Higher global female mortality in disasters ................................................................................. 47
Australian context for gender and disaster research .................................................................. 52
Disaster and domestic violence ....................................................................................................... 53
Explanations for increased violence against women ................................................................... 57
The under-reporting of violence against women in disasters ..................................................... 60
Violence and disaster in Australia................................................................................................ 63
Conclusion ....................................................................................................................................... 65
3: Methodology ..................................................................................................................... 67
Context ............................................................................................................................................ 67
Ethics and recruitment procedures ............................................................................................. 77
Data recording and analysis ......................................................................................................... 79
The sample................................................................................................................................... 80
Difficulty in recruiting women ..................................................................................................... 81
4: Surviving Black Saturday ................................................................................................... 84
Introduction ..................................................................................................................................... 84
Stay or go bushfire preparation policy ............................................................................................ 85
Those who stayed ........................................................................................................................ 91
The day after ................................................................................................................................ 94
Expectations of masculinity ............................................................................................................. 95
Women alone .................................................................................................................................. 99
Pressures after the fires ................................................................................................................... 100
Stressors ...................................................................................................................................... 104
Increased alcohol and drug abuse ............................................................................................... 108
Psychological effects of disaster .................................................................................................. 110
Re-emergence of past trauma ..................................................................................................... 114
Relationships in crisis ....................................................................................................................... 116
Closer to divorce .......................................................................................................................... 122
Conclusion ....................................................................................................................................... 123
5: Violence against women after disaster............................................................................. 125
Introduction ..................................................................................................................................... 125
Findings of increased violence against women after Black Saturday .............................................. 126
The link between domestic violence and disaster ....................................................................... 127
No data on domestic violence after Black Saturday .................................................................... 128
‘No data, no problem’ .................................................................................................................. 140
Possible explanations for post-disaster domestic violence ............................................................. 142
Theory 1: Disaster unmasks existing domestic violence.............................................................. 143
Theory 2: Disaster exacerbates women’s vulnerability and men’s use of violence .................... 147
Theory 3: A culture of denial ....................................................................................................... 153
Women affirm increased domestic violence after Black Saturday .................................................. 159
Real domestic violence? .............................................................................................................. 165
Conclusion ................................................................................................................................... 167
6: Privilege and sacrifice ....................................................................................................... 169
Introduction ..................................................................................................................................... 169
Opportunity after disaster to reinforce patriarchy .......................................................................... 170
Opportunity seized after Black Saturday ......................................................................................... 176
Unequal access to economic power ............................................................................................ 177
Violence and its denial ................................................................................................................. 181
Happily ever after in the gender order ........................................................................................ 182
‘Poor men’ – more valued, more deserving of empathy ............................................................. 186
Sacrifice............................................................................................................................................ 187
Women’s sacrifice after Black Saturday ...................................................................................... 189
Pressure not to speak: ‘How can I complain?’ ............................................................................. 192
Inadequate specialist and community service response to domestic violence ........................... 195
Inadequate emergency response to domestic violence .............................................................. 201
Conclusion ....................................................................................................................................... 209
7: Conclusion and future actions .......................................................................................... 211
Key findings ...................................................................................................................................... 213
Recommendations for future action ............................................................................................... 214
1: Prioritise domestic violence..................................................................................................... 215
2: Inadequate data ...................................................................................................................... 216
3: Entrenched gender roles ......................................................................................................... 217
4: Women’s sacrifice.................................................................................................................... 218
Recommendations for future research ........................................................................................... 219
Conclusion ....................................................................................................................................... 220
References ............................................................................................................................ 222
Appendix 1: Depiction of heroes after Black Saturday .................................................................... 241
Appendix 2: Participant information and consent, and ethics approvals ........................................ 246
Appendix 3: Recruitment flyer ......................................................................................................... 254
Appendix 4: Interview schedules ..................................................................................................... 255
Appendix 5: Relationship characteristics ......................................................................................... 256
This thesis documents the first Australian research to interview women about their
experiences of domestic violence after catastrophic disaster. As such research is rare in
developed countries, it addresses a gap in the disaster literature. Interviews with 30 women
in two shires in Victoria confirmed that domestic violence increased following the Black
Saturday bushfires on 7th February, 2009. The scant research that exists internationally
indicates that not only is the notion of ‘women and children first a myth, but that women
are disproportionally affected by disasters primarily as a result of their poverty relative to
men and prescribed gender roles. This research found that women experiencing increased
male violence were silenced in preference of supporting suffering men men who had been
heroes in the fires or were traumatised or unemployed as a result of the disaster. The
silencing was evident in the lack of statistics on domestic violence in the aftermath of Black
Saturday, the neglect of this issue in recovery and reconstruction operations, and the
responses to women’s reports of violence against them by legal, community and health
professionals. Three broad explanations for increased domestic violence after Black
Saturday are identified drawn from empirical findings from the field and the research
literature. Theoretical concepts from two disparate fields sacrifice and male privilege
help to explain a key finding that women’s right to live free from violence is conditional.
Indeed, the aftermath of Black Saturday presents Australians with the opportunity to see
how deeply embedded misogyny is and how fragile our attempts to criminalise domestic
violence and hold violent men accountable for their actions. The post-disaster period
characterised as it is by men in uniforms on the ground working, saving, rescuing and
restoring; powerful imagery about the role of wives and mothers; increased violence by
men; mandatory care-loads for women; and the suffering of good men presents fertile
ground for the fortification of male hegemony. Yet, post-disaster change does not have to
be regressive, reinstating and reinforcing the traditional inequitable structure a structure
that has high costs for men and women. An emergency management response to disaster
that has embedded gender equity at all levels, together with education of communities on
the contribution of strict gender roles to suffering in disaster’s aftermath, could exemplify
and hasten a more equal society where men’s violence against women is rare.
The work contained in this thesis has not been previously submitted to meet the requirements for
an award at this or any other higher education institution. To the best of my knowledge, the thesis
contains no material previously published or written by another person except where due reference
is made and clearly acknowledged.
Under the Copyright Act 1968, this thesis must be used only under the normal conditions of
scholarly fair dealing. In particular no results or conclusions should be extracted from it, nor should it
be copied or closely paraphrased in whole or in part without the written consent of the author.
Proper written acknowledgement should be made for any assistance obtained from this thesis.
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the owner's permission.
Debra Parkinson
Memories of the women I met through this research stay with me. Their stories of what happened
on the 9th February, 2009 and in its long aftermath reveal the tribulation and assaults they
experienced. The risks they took in participating in this research and their strength in doing it
anyway become evident. I join them in their hope and belief that research can effect positive
changes and prevent others suffering in the same way.
In 2010, Professor Denise Cuthbert agreed to take on the supervision of this PhD thesis. Professor
Cuthbert supervised this thesis alone until 30th July 2011when she became an external associate
supervisor. I will be forever grateful for her encouragement, her careful and insightful advice
throughout, and her quick attention to my requests. From August 2011, Denise was joined by my co-
supervisors, Dr Kirsten McLean and Dr Danielle Tyson. Thank you Kirsten and Danielle for your
thoughts and direction at critical stages in the thesis, and for the expert assistance you provided
whenever I asked. Thanks to Monique Keel for proof-reading this thesis.
The Monash University Political and Social Inquiry (PSI) staff have encouraged and assisted my work
at each critical juncture from confirmation and mid-candidature, through to financial support for a
writing retreat and travel to Japan to present this research. Special thank you to Dr Michael Janover,
who convened the panels and provided excellent feedback, and JaneMaree Maher, Dr Helen Forbes-
Mewett, Narelle Miragliotta, and other panel members. Thanks to Scott Xu and the panels
approving study grants. A special thanks to Sue Little and the library staff, and to Sue Stevenson,
whose patience and kindness made each administrative step easier.
I would like to thank the Monash University Human Research Ethics Committee for their approval of
the ethics application, along with North East Health Human Research Ethics Committee. The careful
consideration by both committees led to a sound approach to the research.
Dr Elaine Enarson has been an inspiration throughout this research through her leadership in the
field of gender and disaster. She has guided me, along with so many people, and offered her
friendship at the same time. My sincere thanks, too, to Professor Frank Archer, Dr Caroline Spencer
and all from Monash Injury Research Institute for their encouragement and belief in this work.
Without the formal and informal support from Susie Reid, Executive Officer of Women’s Health
Goulburn North East, this research would not have happened. Her tremendous courage in standing
by these unwelcome findings is remarkable. Helen Riseborough, Executive Officer of Women’s
Health In the North has generously shared the resources of this organisation and both have
accommodated my many requests. More broadly, too, my colleagues in the women’s health and
family violence sector have been generous in sharing their practice experience and theoretical
knowledge. Special thanks to Rachael Mackay and Ada Conroy.
Thanks to my dear friends Jane and Marg for accommodation across the state especially at times
of possum infestation and for support in this long trek! Thanks, too, to my friends and colleagues
at WHGNE and WHIN, and Rachel and Bianca for ongoing interest and encouragement.
An inadequate thank you to Claire Zara, a close and dear friend, and a colleague I deeply respect and
admire. Over more than a decade of working together on a diverse range of research projects, Claire
has turned work into something all encompassing. Friendship melds with work and it’s impossible to
separate the two. Thanks for everything Claire.
Heartfelt thanks to my sisters firstly to Maxine and Jan for reading and critiquing with clarity and
sensitivity. The thesis is greatly improved as a result. Thanks to Di for many hours of work helping
with transcriptions and her insights at critical points. And always, my deepest gratitude to Lex and
Pete for offering both perspective and refuge!
Perhaps the greatest collateral damage has been borne by Alex, a rare and lovely partner who cared
for me, body, mind and soul, and lived patiently with my general distractedness. His
recommendation of Winterreise proved to be perfect. My inspiring and interesting children, Jemma,
Rowan and Edward, offered both moral and practical support each in their own way. Over a
lifetime of part-time study, they no doubt wondered when it would all end.
My deep respect and appreciation to Gough Whitlam who let my generation have an education
beyond secondary school. Admiration and thanks to Germaine Greer, who, back in the 70s, opened
my young eyes to structural discrimination. And eternal gratitude to my parents.
For Claire.
Australian Broadcasting Corporation
Access to Allied Psychological Services
Country Fire Authority
Council of Australian Governments
Common Risk Assessment Framework
Local Government Area
Research Coordinating Committee (Victoria Police)
Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction and Recovery Authority
Disaster’ includes natural disasters such as bushfires, floods, earthquakes, hurricanes and
cyclones. However, war, terrorism, drought and climate change are excluded. Enrico
Quarantelli (1994) described droughts, famines and some epidemics as ‘diffused’ and
concluded that disaster is best understood as ‘an occasion involving an immediate crisis or
emergency’. The definition used by the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster
Risk Reduction (UNISDR) is that disaster is:
‘a serious disruption of the functioning of a community or a society causing
widespread human, material, economic, or environmental losses which exceed the
ability of the affected community or society to cope using its own resources’.
(UNISDR, 2009, para. 25)
Fire-affected regions
The ‘fire-affected regions’ for the purposes of this research are those located in the
Shires of Mitchell and Murrindindi
Domestic violence/ Family violence
The terms ‘domestic violence‘ and ‘family violence’ are reluctantly used in this
report reflecting their various use by participants, workers, authors and in different
states and countries. These terms are euphemistic and infer an equal violence which
is unsupported in crime statistics (VicHealth, 2011). Where possible, the terms
‘Violence against women’ is used. ‘Domestic Violence’ and ‘Family violence’ are
defined differently by laws in each Australian state and territory. In 2011, in their
National Plan, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) stated that ‘Domestic
violence’ includes physical, sexual, emotional and psychological abuse:
‘While there is no single definition, the central element of domestic violence is an
ongoing pattern of behaviour aimed at controlling a partner through fear ... It can be
both criminal and non-criminal.’ (Council of Australian Governments, 2011a, p. 3)
In Article 1 of the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, 1993, The UN
‘The term violence against women means any act of gender-based violence that
results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering
to women ... whether occurring in public or private life.’ (UN, 1993, Article 1)
In the Victorian context, ‘Family violence’ is defined in the Family Violence Protection Act
2008 ("Family Violence Protection Act ", 2008) as follows:
‘(1) For the purposes of this Act, family violence is
(a) behaviour by a person towards a family member of that person if that behaviour
(i) is physically or sexually abusive; or
(ii) is emotionally or psychologically abusive; or is economically abusive; or is
threatening; or
is coercive; or
in any other way controls or dominates the family member and causes that family member
to feel fear for the safety or wellbeing of that family member or another person ...’ —
("Family Violence Protection Act ", 2008)
Conventions adopted in the thesis
Terminology: Some of the women interviewed lived with continuing mental health
issues and some worked as health professionals. In their narratives, they used terms
their counsellors or psychologists had explained, for example, ‘de-bonding’,
‘narcissism’, ‘paranoia’. These terms, and terms like ‘depression’ and ‘anxiety’ were
used in a colloquial, conversational sense rather than as diagnoses and are repeated
here in the same way.
Referencing of websites: Page and/or paragraph numbers are generally not provided
as the search function enables quick retrieval of quotations.
All names used for research participants are pseudonyms, including their family
members and others they refer to by name.
1: Introduction
Australians have a one in six estimated lifetime exposure to natural disaster (McFarlane,
2005) and Victoria is one of the three most fire-prone areas in the world (Valent, 1984, p.
292). On February 9 2009, the Black Saturday fires classified as ‘catastrophic’ resulted
in the greatest loss of life from a bushfire since white settlement with 173 deaths. A further
414 people were injured and 2133 houses were destroyed (Cameron et al., 2009; Victorian
Bushfires Royal Commission, 2010b). Displacement was estimated to be in the order of
7,000 people (Atkins, 2011, p. 4). The ferocity of the fires, the total devastation of whole
communities, and the individual tragedies were a new and traumatic experience for the
people living and working there. Even when people had survived bushfires in the past,
nothing prepared them for Black Saturday.
Large-scale disasters are typically managed in a gendered way in which assumptions are
made about the role of men as protector and women as protected (Eriksen, 2014). In the
most obvious example, men are at the frontline in fighting bushfires much more than
women. Yet over the half century leading up to Black Saturday, 40 per cent of those killed in
bushfires were female (99 females and 146 males) (Haynes et al., 2008) and on Black
Saturday, females accounted for 42 per cent of deaths (73 females and 100 males)
(Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission, 2010b).
Women’s responsibility for children and other dependents increases their risk by
complicating efforts to escape or fight the fires. Risks for women reach beyond the actual
disaster to its aftermath, as the research literature suggests violence against women
increases after disaster. Yet there is a gap in the Australian literature of the sociological
aspects of disaster recovery in Australia. While previous Australian research has looked at
what happens in disaster-recovery phases, none focuses on the experience of women in
regard to violence. In the tumult of disaster recovery, domestic violence is often ignored,
unrecognised and unrecorded.
In this research, narratives of domestic violence are captured from 30 women who survived
Black Saturday. The personal is indeed political as each woman’s story of individual struggle
is much more than that her circumstances dictated to a large degree by the expectations
society has of men and women.
The literature review on women and disasters in Chapter 2 shows that in developing
countries women are at greater risk of mortality in a disaster, and increased violence against
women is characteristic of a post-disaster recovery. Although little is written on the link
between natural disasters and domestic violence in developed countries, in 2012, Megan
Sety (2012) identified there had been interest in exploring this link in the late 1990s.
Publication of The Gendered Terrain of Disaster in 1998 edited by leading gender and
disaster scholar, Elaine Enarson was a catalyst. This was followed by a resurgence of
interest a decade later after frequent and severe natural disasters.
In Australia, there appear to be no published research studies investigating increased rates
of violence against women in the wake of a disaster,
yet there was attention to this issue in
a 1992 symposium on Women in Emergencies and Disasters, convened in Queensland by the
Bureau of Emergency Services. This was followed by a special edition of The Macedon Digest
on the symposium where three papers touched on concern about increased domestic
violence. In her short article on the ‘Special Needs of Women in Emergency Situations’,
Councillor Beth Honeycombe from the Burdekin Shire Council in Queensland notes, ‘an
increase in domestic violence is repeatedly found in post-disaster situations(1994, p. 31). In
a second article, social worker Narelle Dobson writes on the period following the 1990
Charleville flood:
Human relations were laid bare and the strengths and weaknesses in relationships
came more sharply into focus. Thus, socially isolated women became more isolated,
Kerri Whittenbury (2013) has found evidence of increased violence against women in relation to declining water
availability. As drought has a slow-onset, it is excluded from the definition of disaster used in this thesis as recommended
by Quarantelli (1994).
domestic violence increased, and the core of relationships with family, friends and
spouses were exposed. (Dobson, 1994, p. 11)
A third paper delivered by Jan Williams (1994), the Divisional Head of Community Services
Development, Department of Family Services and Aboriginal and Islander Affairs in
Queensland, summarises the salient points in proceedings of a workshop conducted by Jan
Van Landewijk and Kathleen Shordt in Amsterdam in 1988 on ‘Settlements and Disasters’.
This paper notes, ‘women’s health and security is not only directly affected by the direct
impact of the disaster but also by vulnerability to unchecked male violence and aggression’
(Van Lendewijk & Shordt, 1988, cited in Williams, 1994, p. 36). Although Williams does not
identify increased violence against women, she writes of the need to provide domestic
violence services after disaster and describes at length those in place in Queensland.
In countries similar to Australia, evidence reveals that domestic violence, child abuse and
divorce all increase in the wake of disasters (Anastario, Shehab, & Lawry, 2009; Clemens,
Hietala, Rytter, Schmidt, & Reese, 1999; Enarson, 1999; Fothergill, 1999; Houghton, 2009b;
Jenkins & Phillips, 2008b; Schumacher et al., 2010). In the United States, a 2009 study
(Anastario et al., 2009) showed a four-fold increase in intimate partner violence in the
aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (Phillips, 2011). In New Zealand, following the 2004
Whakatane flood, Rosalind Houghton (2010) reports that the workload of the Women’s
Refuge tripled and callouts to police doubled, and after the 2006 South Canterbury
snowstorm in the Timaru Districts, she identifies that ‘the Women’s Refuge case file
summaries suggest that there was indeed an increase in domestic violence reports to the
police’ (2010, p. 281). In 2010, New Zealand police reported a 53 per cent increase in
callouts to domestic violence incidents over the weekend of the Canterbury earthquake on
September 4th (Houghton, 2010). Six months later, the five domestic violence services in
Christchurch reported that ‘inquiries increased to 47 in the first two days after the
earthquake’ on 2.3.2011 – an estimated 50 per cent increase (Phillips, 2011, para. 1).
In Australia to date, no published research has documented women’s experience of violence
after disaster. Despite work in recent decades to address domestic violence in the
community generally, it is apparent in the research literature that lack of recognition of
violence against women in the private domain may be taken to a new level in a post-disaster
context where stress levels are high, men are often unemployed and sometimes suicidal,
and memories are fresh of their ‘heroic’ deeds. Support services, too, may be over-
burdened with primary and fire-related needs in the aftermath of a disaster and this all
combines to exacerbate a willingness to overlook violence against women.
The dearth of research on violence against women after disaster in developed countries and
its almost complete absence in Australia led to this research. Many disaster scholars have
pointed to the gap in the research documenting women’s experiences, particularly research
with women directly, and some have explicitly called for more research to be conducted on
this topic (Enarson & Phillips, 2008; Fothergill, 2008; Tyler et al., 2012). Indeed, more
research is needed for both women’s and men’s experiences of increased violence after
disasters but this contribution focuses on women’s experiences.
Structure of the thesis
Part 1 of this thesis is the apparatus, detailed in the first three chapters. Chapter 1
introduces the topic and gives a general background to illustrate the gap in the existing body
of knowledge and the need for this research. The second chapter is the literature review
and emerging research questions. A traditional funnel approach is taken, as a wide lens is
necessary to understanding the dynamics of what happened after Black Saturday. The
research literature on gender and society narrows slightly to theories of gender
construction, exposing the enculturation of babies to men or women, with attendant
rewards and penalties dependent on sex. Within each of these sections is consideration of
how this operates in disaster situations. Theoretical explanations for the increased violence
against women after disasters emerge from two disparate fields theories of male privilege
and theories of sacrifice. Male privilege as a theoretical concept is well established and
broadly accepted. Drawing on sacrificial theories is perhaps more controversial as it is rarely
linked to theories of violence against women. Nevertheless, both paradigms offer useful
insights to understanding the dynamics of increased domestic violence after disaster, and
these sections of the literature review summarise relevant parts of these rich, problematic
bodies of theorisation. The chapter then examines research on the highly gendered nature
Research on masculinity and disaster is outside the scope of this work, but initial research has begun (Zara & Parkinson,
of violence in society generally, and this is followed by an analysis of the existing literature
on gender and disaster. It is here that the research literature becomes more scarce, both in
developed countries and in Australia specifically. This gender and disaster section reports on
the higher mortality of women after disasters globally, laying bare the myth of ‘women and
children first’ and then narrows to lament the lack of research in Australia on gender and
sociological aspects of disaster. The locus of need for this research then follows in the
disaster and violence section. Again, research in developed countries is rare but what does
exist reveals a connection between disasters and increased violence against women.
Explanations for this association from the literature, along with the under-reporting of
violence against women in disasters, provide the backdrop for considering violence and
disaster in Australia an under-researched topic. It is this gap that the current research
begins to address.
Chapter 3 outlines the methodology, clarifying the specific intent of the research endeavour,
and the procedures followed. Ethics and recruitment processes, and data collection and
analysis are described in detail, along with a description of the final sample. Reflection on
difficulties in recruiting women and the significance of the study concludes this first part.
Part 2 of the thesis is the exposition. Data driven, Chapters 4 and 5 tell the story of what
happened on Black Saturday and in its long aftermath. Chapter 4 draws back from the topic
to give the layered and complex context within which violence emerged. The women
interviewed spoke at length about the day, linking it explicitly to their experiences and
observations of increased violence. It is therefore critical to spend some time immersed in
the terror of Black Saturday. The narratives take us into the unrelenting pressures of the
aftermath, too, implicating practical housing and employment issues, alcohol and drug
abuse, psychological effects on survivors and re-emergence of past trauma. Many described
relationships in crisis and edging towards divorce. Chapter 5 begins with a summary of the
research findings of increased violence against women and then takes a broad view,
reporting on the lack of data on domestic violence incidents and its apparent neglect by
disaster recovery agencies. No data, unfortunately interpreted as no problem, leads to a
widespread denial of increased violence against women. The chapter then analyses the
range of hypotheses offered from the literature, the family violence sector and the women
interviewed. It concludes with the women’s clear statements of violence against them
which, for most was either new violence, not previously experienced in their relationship, or
sharply escalated from pre-disaster levels.
Part 3 Chapters 6 and 7 contains the theorisation, interpretation, and conclusion.
Chapter 6 draws heavily on the women’s narratives to exemplify and link the theoretical
concepts of male privilege and theories of sacrifice. It asserts that the window of
opportunity for change offered by catastrophic disaster resulted in reinforcement of
traditional gendered roles where men were expected to provide and protect, and women
were expected to put their own needs last, forgoing employment and leadership roles in
disaster recovery to first and foremost support their husband and children. The expectation
for women facing violence by their partner in the disaster’s aftermath extended to putting
up with this for the greater good. Chapter 7, the conclusion, states the contribution of this
thesis, suggesting future actions and pointing to future research and policy opportunities.
Significance of the study
This report documents the findings of qualitative research conducted over two years from
late 2009 to 2011. It captures the experience and knowledge of women who survived Black
Saturday. The accounts of the women in this sample reveal that 17 of the 30 women
experienced domestic violence that they attributed to the Black Saturday bushfires.
The question of causality is controversial and less important than acting on the knowledge
that increased domestic violence and disasters are linked (Bain, 2014). The extent to which
this finding is generalisable to the wider population affected by Black Saturday is two-fold,
implicating both that specific post-disaster population and wider populations in the disaster
zone. Cognisant always that this is qualitative research and makes no claims on
representativeness of the sample to the wider population, nevertheless, it is noteworthy
that the sample was drawn from a small population, made smaller by post-disaster
relocation. It is equally noteworthy that there were barriers to women’s participation in this
research. Both practical problems of managing complex lives in the reconstruction period
and the taboo nature of this research exacerbated by disaster tensions discussed in depth
in this thesis served to silence women.
The sample for this research was a purposive sample, where women were invited to speak
about their experiences of Black Saturday and its aftermath, including experiences of
violence. It is unclear if similar results would be obtained if this study was conducted again
in this same population. However, it is probable that more women would come forward for
interviews if the research was to be repeated in the same population, particularly when
society’s willingness to hear of increased violence against women after disaster grows. The
passing of time, too, allows women to recognise the nature of the violence against them,
particularly after leaving abusive relationships, as identified in a previous research project:
[Partner rape research] participants told us, with hindsight, that denial or non-
recognition of the rape served as a survival strategy. If they had recognised it as
rape, they could not have managed their situation ... As a result, the way women
complete surveys would be inaccurate. A legal interpretation would state that rape
was occurring because consent was absent, and yet the women were interpreting
their rape as something their partner had a right to, until the benefit of hindsight
told them otherwise. This standpoint is supported by the 2005 ABS data which
examines sexual violence by perpetrator type. Of women experiencing sexual
violence ‘since the age of 15‘, 21.7% was by a previous partner. This is ten times the
figure for current partner, of 2.1%. (Parkinson & Cowan, 2008, p. 18).
Although there is no claim of representativeness of this sample to the whole population
given its qualitative nature, the 17 women from the sample who spoke of increased violence
in their own or their daughter or sister’s relationship would be only some of a bigger group
of women enduring domestic violence after Black Saturday. This is likely to be the case in
Mitchell and Murrindindi shires and beyond to other fire-affected regions. This claim is
supported by the fact that the interviews could have continued beyond the data gathering
period allocated. Other women were recommended for interview but the timeline for this
research prevented their inclusion. During the data-gathering period, despite interest in
participating, women from outside Mitchell and Murrindindi shires were excluded from the
study because of their location.
It is probable that similar results would be obtained if this methodology were to be
repeated after a future catastrophic disaster. If women feel safe to speak of the violence
against them, even in circumstances where they are silenced as effectively as after Black
Saturday, they are likely to echo the accounts of the women in this sample.
Delegates enquiring about the Identifying the Hidden Disaster Conference at which the
initial findings of this research were presented (Parkinson & Zara, 2012c) reiterated the
need for such open discussion of domestic violence after disaster. Enquirers included
workers at the Red Cross and in church groups, many of whom welcomed this first exposure
of an issue that reflected their own observations of working in the field, post-disasters. One
commented, ‘Finally a conference that lifts the lid on what is widely understood, but not
spoken about’ (Personal communication, 2011c).
Interviewees for an evaluation of the 2011 Bush to Beach weekend event for women
confirmed that increased domestic violence was still a problem in their communities almost
three years after the fires.
In addition, requests for information and resources from this
research were received from Queensland Police, the South Australian government, and
Tasmanian domestic violence workers following observations of increased domestic
violence after disasters in their states; and from the Victorian Department of Human
Services and the Municipal Association of Victoria in anticipation of this occurrence in future
disasters in Victoria.
Family violence professionals also emailed. One wrote that after Black Saturday in the
Gippsland area in Victoria, an increase in family violence ‘was reported by a number of the
agencies working in the region’ (Personal communication, 2011a) and another regional co-
ordinator emailed, stating that a local worker in Murrindindi shire had identified a problem
‘getting referrals from police’ and ‘there could be issues around how they identify it and lack
of reporting’ (Personal communication, 2011b). Further corroboration was found in
subsequent research with 32 men on their experiences of Black Saturday and its aftermath
(Zara & Parkinson, 2013). One participant in that research was frustrated by the
unsatisfactory response by police and community services to domestic violence, citing one
instance in particular where there was a two month delay between referral and response by
Confidential evaluation conducted by Women’s Health Goulburn North East in 2012.
services. He described his street as ‘replete with domestic violence’ (Zara & Parkinson, 2013,
p. 35). Another spoke of his concerns for his daughter and grandchildren:
The police were called on numerous occasions ... The police were very
understanding, much more so than I think he perhaps deserved ... We thought he
might ... top the lot of them ... There were times I felt threatened because he's built
like a brick toilet and I was always aware that if he did decide to take a swing ...
there'd be absolutely no question that he'd flatten me with one punch. (Zara &
Parkinson, 2013, p. 35)
The claim of this research is that there are indications that the findings are generalisable to
the extent that many women will experience increased domestic violence from male
partners after catastrophic disaster. Black Saturday up-ended and scattered entire
communities. For some, the wholesale disruption continues still, five years after the event,
and will continue for many people, for years to come. The value of this research for us as
friends, family, colleagues and human beings, is that we have the opportunity to hear
directly from women about what happened, and understand how the Black Saturday
bushfires affected them and the people around them. In this document, 30 women reflect
beyond the terror of the disaster itself, and beyond the heroism of individuals, to speak of
how this disaster has irreversibly changed aspects of their lives and their sense of self.
2: Literature review on women and disasters
This chapter analyses a range of sources and materials related to the gendered impact of
disasters, situating this in the broader scholarship of gender and society and the
construction of binary and prescribed gender roles. An understanding of socially constructed
gender roles is intrinsic to understanding gender based violence:
Evidence shows that key predictors of violence against women relate to how individuals,
communities and society as a whole view the roles of men and women. Some of the
strongest predictors for holding violence-supportive attitudes at the individual level are low
levels of support for gender equality and following traditional gender stereotypes
(VicHealth, 2009). (Council of Australian Governments, 2011a, p. 18)
The socially constructed inequality between men and women is a key enabler of gendered
violence (True, 2012; VicHealth, 2007) and the theory on violence against women provides
context for examination of gendered violence after disasters. Scholarship on male privilege
and theories of sacrifice inform understanding of these dynamics. There is currently greater
consensus on theories of male privilege than sacrifice, as little has been written that uses
sacrificial theories to illuminate violence against women after disasters.
While the data
gathering aspect of this research has focused on women’s experiences after Black Saturday,
it is necessary to draw on other research that seeks to explain the gendered inequality that
Interest in the theory of sacrifice is evident in diverse studies from economics to criminology to history and literature
(Florczak, 2004; Smith & Doniger, 1989; Young, 1996). In her examination of crisis in criminology and criminal law, Alison
Young (1996, p. 9) states that she aims to examine the importance of ‘concepts of community for the crimino-legal
tradition’. She continues, ‘To that end, I have made use of the work of Girard (1986) on the scapegoat and inflected it with
a question directed at the Hegelian problematic of community, as to whether Woman might be always already constituted
as a surrogate for the originary outlaw of the community’ (1996, p. 9). She draws further on Girard’s work on the scapegoat
to ‘consider then how the concept of the victim, and the concomitant notion of sacrifice, might help us to understand
three manifestations of crisis’ (p. 51). However, with the exception of the few studies I have found (Avril, Lesley, Morgan &
Davis., 2012; Crawford, 1998; Jeffrey, 1998; Roberts & Renzo, 2007; Slawsky, 2004; Solnit, 2005, 2009), the use of sacrificial
theories to explain violence against women after disasters would appear not to have been used in this context.
Gender and society
Much scholarship on gender and society speculates that biological and genetic differences
do not explain the differential treatment of men and women, girls and boys, in different
cultures around the world. Simone de Beauvoir wrote in 1949, ‘One is not born, but rather
becomes, a woman’ (de Beauvoir, 1983, first published 1949, p. 295). The different
interpretations of how being a woman, for example, may be experienced and enacted show
gender to be fluid socially re-constructed again and again, even within the same culture
(Allen, 2002; Austin, 2008; Deutsch, 2007; Pease, 2010a). Rather than a biological fact,
gender is accomplished through routine social actions and interactions (Connell, 2009; Jurik
& Siemsen, 2009; West & Zimmerman, 1987). Consideration of contrasting displays of
hegemonic masculinity in South Africa and Sweden reveal different expectations of men in
these two countries (Hearn & Morrell, 2012; Hearn et al., 2012). Similarly, consideration of
stereotypes of the ideal woman in Australia in the bush and in the city, in the 1950s and
now, reveal different expectations of womanhood. What is normal for men and women
changes in history, culture and situation clearly the ‘doing’ of gender is negotiated and
contested (Coles, 2009; Pacholok, 2009) with how much is won and lost depending on
power relations (Kahn, 2011). Duke Austin writes:
The categories used in language, such as the gender categories of feminine and
masculine, emerge from the interaction of a group of people at a particular time and
in a particular place within a system of power struggles, differences, and
negotiations. Categories of understanding are therefore contextual, yet humans act
as if the categories were real, which makes the categories real in their consequences
(Thomas 1923). (Austin, 2008, p. 2)
The consequences of gender construction for women in Australia in the early 21st century
are evident in statistics. Australia is ranked 25th in the world for gender equality (Hausmann,
Tyson, & Zahidi, 2010). It is known that one in three Australian women experience domestic
violence and one in five women are victims of sexual violence (CASA Forum Centres Against
Sexual Assault, 2013). It is estimated that one woman in ten experiences rape by a partner
(The National Council to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children, 2009) and one
woman a week is killed by her partner in Australia (Broderick, 2011). The prevalence of
violence against women, itself intolerable, exacerbates women’s financial circumstances
and intensifies gender inequity.
In the Australian state of Victoria, more females than males aged 55-64 were homeless in
2011 (51 per cent) (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2011b) and 82 per cent of single parents
are women (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2011c). Men and women are treated differently
in the workplace. This includes a preference for men in hiring, where 40 per cent of
employers in Australian see women with children as undesirable employees (Zhu Howorth,
2013), to sexual harassment of women at work, through to higher valuing of traditional
male sectors (Cerise, 2009; McDonald & Flood, 2012; Noble & Pease, 2011; Pease, 2010b;
Summers, 2003; Zhu Howorth, 2013). Fair Work Australia stated in their 2012 decision
equal remuneration that gender discrimination was influential in the 17 per cent pay gap
(WGEA, 2012). Between 2011 and 2012, the pay gap to new graduates doubled to $5,000
per annum more for men (WGEA, 2013) indicating that operation of the ‘glass escalator’ for
men and the ‘glass ceiling’ for women begins with the first career step (Noble & Pease,
2011, p. 33).
At the end of working life, the gender difference in superannuation balances is well-
documented with women retiring on an average superannuation balance of $112,000,
compared to $198,000 for men (Keene, 2013). Almost two-thirds (63 per cent) of Australia’s
superannuation belongs to men (Potts, 2013) reflecting the pay differential and cultural
expectation that women rather than men are more likely to work only part-time due to
caring responsibilities (Hodgson & Medd, 2013; WGEA, 2012). The Australian Sex
Discrimination Commissioner reported in 2013 that three quarters of primary carers are
women: 92 per cent of those caring for children with disability are women, as are 70 per
cent of those caring for parents (AHRC, 2013, p. 1). Contrary to assumptions that equality
exists for young women, this gap is predicted to affect generations to come (Cerise, 2009).
Other inequities abound:
In this decision we have concluded that for employees in the SACS industry there is not equal remuneration for men and
women workers for work of equal or comparable value by comparison with workers in state and local government
employment. We consider gender has been important in creating the gap between pay in the SACS industry and pay in
comparable state and local government employment.’ (Fair Work Australia, 2012)
One of the greatest examples of inequality between women and men in Australia
today is the lifetime-earning prospects of a young woman who has spent years at
university. A report released in October 2012 showed that a 25-year-old woman with
post-graduate qualifications would, over her lifetime, earn $2.49 million. The 25-
year-old man who had sat beside her in class would, by contrast accumulate $3.78
million (AMP.NATSEM, 2012) ... [Furthermore],’men who hold a Bachelor degree or
higher and have children can expect to earn around $3.3 million over their working
life (AMP.NATSEM, 2009)’. Yet a woman with similar education and children can
expect to earn $1.8 million. That's nearly half the amount men will take home (Ibid).
(Summers, 2013, pp. 53-54)
Women marginalised in disaster management
Women face discrimination in disaster management, too. Women are essential to volunteer
and professional organisations but are rarely in positions of power (Tyler, 2013), both in the
United States and in Australia. In 2011, the New South Wales Rural Fire Service reported
levels of engagement with women in their service, indicating their reliance on women as
volunteers primarily in non-operational roles and with barely a presence in leadership roles:
Women currently constitute 21 per cent of the 68 396 ‘operational’ RFS volunteers,
who include firefighters, team members, crew leaders, team leaders and officers
(personal communication, NSW RFS Corporate Planning, Research & Governance
Group, 2012). Women hold 7 per cent of crew leader, team leader and officer
positions and constitute 22 per cent of firefighters and team members. Currently, 2
per cent of all brigade captains and 4 per cent of deputy captains are women. The
1850 ‘non-operational’ volunteers, who fulfil roles such as communications and
catering, are 40 per cent women. At the salaried end of the scale, women fill 32 per
cent of a total of 969 staff positions. This gendered division of both membership
numbers and roles reflects the continual reliance on patriarchal structures for the
control of both technology and nature. (Eriksen, 2013, p. 3)
There is ongoing gender inequity in emergency management, and evidence of situations
where men predominantly take charge of disaster management ‘systematically excluding
women, their needs, competences and experiences from contributing to these efforts’
(Neumayer & Plümper, 2007b, p. 12). In the United States, for example, Krajeski and
Peterson write:
Indeed, we have seen women lead some of the nation’s most effective recovery
organizations, but have even more frequently seen their contributions thwarted.
(Krajeski & Peterson, 2008, p. 210)
Gendered assumptions have characterised much post-disaster response (Scanlon, 1997) and
each step in recovery reflects (and exaggerates) the inherent power structures at play in the
community (Enarson & Fordham, 2001). In Australia, too:
Scant attention is paid to women and their roles in the emergency management
landscape. This is particularly relevant in the field of community bushfire
preparedness and mitigation. The culture of emergency management remains a very
masculine field with the command and control system continuing to dominate and
influence the roles and processes of emergency events. (Proudley, 2008, p. 37)
The public/private dichotomy of men’s and women’s work in disaster management was on
display after the Charleville floods in Queensland, where ‘the most public aspects of the
clean-up were a male affair’ and the emergency services – including police and the military
were mostly men (Dobson, 1994, p. 12). Women’s recovery work is far less visible, less
valued and usually contained within households (Cox, 1998; Dobson, 1994; Shaw, van Unen,
& Lang, 2012). The concept of keeping the family unit together is not recognised, nor is the
responsibility for its emotional, spiritual and physical well-being (Cox & Perry, 2011;
Honeycombe, 1994). The heroes were public and they were male (see Appendix 1), and this
portrayal has been challenged as misleading (Fuller, 1994). As Dobson stated:
I believe that there were many heroines among the women who held their families
together, who carved out a home from the mire, and continued to contribute
through their community and professional work. (Dobson, 1994, p. 13)
Theories of gender construction learning masculinity and femininity
Gender as a social construction and hegemonic masculinity are thoroughly theorised, most
notably and pervasively by Raewyn Connell in her book, Masculinities (2005), first published
in 1995, and by others (Donaldson, 1993; Jurik & Siemsen, 2009; Messerschmidt, 2012;
Pease, 2010b; Wedgwood, 2009; West & Zimmerman, 1987). Connell’s early work on class
shifted focus to include gender theory in the 1970s, with identification that power dynamics
and social change were absent in sex-role theory (Demetriou, 2001). Connell has since
inspired and sharpened debate internationally over many decades since her first publication
on gender in 1974, continuing as a critically important thinker and leader in masculinity
studies, acknowledged as such even by those who critique her work (Coles, 2009;
Demetriou, 2001; Moller, 2007). Other influential scholars including Allan Johnson, Judith
Butler, Francine Deutch, James Messerschmidt, Bob Pease, Candace West and Don
Zimmerman have joined Connell to bring a keen awareness of the inequality that
accompanies enactment of gender. Criticisms of Connell’s theoretical stance, though sparse
in relative terms, centre on the perceived dissonance between male hegemony 'that form
of masculinity that is considered culturally to be most dominant at any given time’ (Coles,
2009, p. 41) and the way individual men experience their power or lack thereof (Coles,
2009; Hearn & Morrell, 2012; Moller, 2007). Such criticisms leave unaddressed the systemic
privilege of men and enduring oppression of women:
The world gender order mostly privileges men over women. Though there are many
local exceptions, there is a patriarchal dividend for men collectively, arising from
higher incomes, higher labour force participation, unequal property ownership,
greater access to institutional power, as well as cultural and sexual privilege ... The
conditions thus exist for the production of a hegemonic masculinity on a world scale
that is to say, a dominant form of masculinity that embodies, organizes and
legitimates men’s domination in the world gender order as a whole. (Connell, 2005,
pp. 260-261)
Other criticism includes claims of reduction in complexity in the conceptual system
developed by Connell (Moller, 2007) and criticism of its apparent dualism of hegemonic and
non-hegemonic masculinities in her theorising (Demetriou, 2001). Rather than criticism of
Connell, others extend the critique to readers of Connell’s comprehensive theory,
contending that it has been taken up in a piecemeal fashion, ignoring three key aspects
the influence of psychoanalysis, the importance of non-hegemonic forms of masculinity and
the role of cathexis (Wedgwood, 2009).
The discourse on gender is punctuated by other significant theorists. For example, West and
Zimmerman’s contribution in 1987 on ‘Doing Gender’, too, has endured in its influence. The
article captured the imagination of researchers in feminist, masculinity and gender
scholarship and sparked writing on both ‘doing’ and ‘undoing’ gender – recently joined by
discussions on ‘overdoing gender’ and ‘postgender’ (Butler, 2004; Deutsch, 2007; Johnson &
Repta, 2012; Jurik & Siemsen, 2009; Risman, 2009; Willer, Rogalin, Conlon, & Wojnowicz,
In her similarly generative chapter on ‘Undiagnosing Gender’ (in her 2004 book, Undoing
Gender), Butler writes:
[T]o 'be diagnosed with gender identity disorder is to be found, in some way, to be
ill, sick, wrong, out of order, abnormal, and to suffer a certain stigmatization as a
consequence of the diagnosis being given at all ... [Such a diagnosis] continues to
pathologize as a mental disorder what ought to be understood instead as one among
many human possibilities of determining one's gender for oneself. (Butler, 2004, p.
Essentialism in gender studies distils into the notion that men and women are different
sex is captured with a tick on one of two boxes and gender is ignored (Johnson & Repta,
2012). Instead, sex and gender are more accurately understood as located on a spectrum or
continuum rather than as a dichotomy, and Messerschmidt (2009) agrees, warning against
simply changing the enactment of gender roles with no effective change to male privilege.
Instead, he suggests that success may be measured in challenge to the essentialism of
binary distinctions, and Risman (2009, p. 84) urges a move to a post-gender society, writing,
‘A just world would be one where sex category matters not at all beyond reproduction;
economic and familial roles would be equally available to persons of any gender’. Post-
genderism recognises the liberating effects of medical achievements such as the birth
control pill and new technologies that ‘have the potential to radically blur the distinctions
between categories of gender, sex, and sexuality’ including artificial wombs, cloning and
sex-change surgery (Johnson & Repta, 2012, p. 29).
Socially constructed gender inequity
The privileging of men and concurrent subjugation of women in our society is well
documented, if ignored regularly as evidenced by the ‘waves’ of feminism. Influential
theorists write powerfully that the invisibility of privilege is its strength, and that the
apparent natural order implicit in privilege and members’ sense of entitlement fortify and
justify inequity (Bolin, Jackson, & Crist, 1998; Connell, 2005; Kimmel, 2013; Pease, 2010b;
Scanlon, 1998). Judith Allen (2002, p. 192) writes, ‘the fish do not know the water is wet’
and Pease (2010b, p. 14) that ‘belief in the naturalness of inequality leads most people to
accept and live with existing inequalities in the same way that we live within the laws of
gravity’. Taken from the title of her 1999 book, Jean Harvey’s term, ‘civilized oppression’
neatly captures the way in which preferential treatment for one gender is normalised in
everyday life. A raft of terms reiterates this point. Gender researchers write of practices that
are ‘unconscious’, ‘habituated’, ‘ingrained’ and ‘pervasive’, and of widespread acceptance of
norms that privilege men (Noble & Pease, 2011, pp. 32-33). They write of normalising men’s
experiences and marginalising women’s (Cundiff, 2012, p. 160); of a ‘male gaze’ (Mulvey,
1975) and a ‘masculinist lens that emphasize[s] a belief in an essentialized male superiority’
(Kahn, 2011, p. 68).
Different aspects of privilege are apparent from individuals’ self-perception when seeing
their reflection in a mirror. Michael Kimmel (2002) described looking in the mirror and
seeing a generic human being, where his own race, gender, class and sexuality were all
invisible to him. He cites a conversation between two women where a white woman
described looking in the mirror and seeing a woman, whereas the other woman described
seeing a black woman (Kimmel, 2002). Others may see first a woman with a disability or a
lesbian. Germaine Greer believes that above all else, women are women first, and that in
‘constructing its male elite, masculinist society continues to be cruel to most men, all
women and all children’ (1999, p. 309). Dimensions of privilege are taken for granted by
those who possess them in our society, it is predominantly white people, men and the
middle class (Coston & Kimmel, 2012) and contributes to a culture of entitlement in which
men expect preferential treatment, believing it to be only fair (Kimmel, 2013). By way of
example, Jack Kahn (2011, p. 68) suggests we consider whose surname is taken in a
relationship, or by children.
Embedded and invisible assumptions of the natural social order leave those with privilege
‘off the hook’ (Noble & Pease, 2011, p. 32) with no expectation to examine the unearned
nature of their privilege, nor to work to a more equal society (Pease, 2010b). This is despite
evidence that the privilege of these groups exists only because of the oppression of others.
Echoing Susan Brownmiller’s (1993) contention that rape by some men is a way for all men
keep all women in a state of fear, Connell (2005) points out there is a patriarchal dividend
for all men as a result of women’s subordination. Even the majority of men who do not live
up to images of hegemonic masculinity still benefit from male domination. In creating,
constructing, enacting or ‘doing’ gender, the culture of patriarchy thrives as the social norm
determined and reproduced by the dominant groups (Deutsch, 2007; Pease, 2010a, 2010b;
West & Zimmerman, 1987). The stark inequities between the genders are not explained by
different abilities:
Sex differences, on almost every psychological trait measured, are either non-
existent or fairly small. Certainly they are much smaller than the differences in social
situations that are commonly justified by the belief in psychological difference such
as unequal incomes, unequal responsibilities in child care and drastic differences in
access to social power.’(Connell, 2005, p. 21)
Gender differentiation is strictly enforced from pre-birth when nursery-wall paint colour and
baby clothes cannot be chosen until the ultra-sound detects whether the baby will join the
privileged gender or the oppressed (however civilised this oppression). The cost for women
is the lower valuing of their contribution to society and the determination by patriarchy of
the parameters of that contribution. Women are not equal partners in the efforts and
rewards of society. While ‘men symbolized the whole society’, as Judith Allen (2002, p. 200)
writes, ‘women could only exemplify their own sex’s maternity’ and try to live up to the
expectations of men. It seems the nature of being a woman is determined by the masculine
ruling elite and subject to change. For women who want to be accepted, their own
embodiment and enactment of womanhood is less important than fitting the template
supplied (Kaschack, 1992 cited in Kahn, 2011, p. 60). The template Alice Fothergill identifies
(in her study on the stigma of accepting charity) was for traditional middle-class women to
be a care-giver, ‘giving of yourself, helping others, and being self-sacrificial’ (2003, p. 666).
However, the closer women conform to the ideal female stereotype as imagined by
patriarchy, the greater the penalty for all but a few, as female virtues of modesty, self-
sacrifice, and being a wife and mother are not the features of workplace and financial
success. There are expectations of role enactment for men and women and reward or
punishment generally depends on how closely individuals conform to stereotypes
(Demetriou, 2001; Messerschmidt, 2009). The source of the problem is power, with men
taking more of everything: money, attention, influence, status, even leisure (Connell, 2005).
Francine Deutsch reframes this as:
When sex category is activated, the stereotypes associated with it are also
automatically activated. Thus, in a wide variety of situations, men are automatically
viewed as more competent, giving them advantages that can easily lead to self-
fulfilling prophecies (Ridgeway and Correll 2004). (Deutsch, 2007, p. 116)
The power that flows from greater ownership and control also confers power over
intellectual freedom, for example, Jurik and Siemsen (2009) note the resistance to new
world views evident in some editorial decisions:
[T]he struggle to publish [West and Zimmerman’s] ‘Doing Gender’ and its continued
reinterpretation in ways that make it more consistent with gender role theory reflect
the difficulty involved in challenging canon. (p. 72)
Writing in Canada, Joseph Scanlon describes another instance where editorial decisions
determined attitudes to gender, legitimising the perception amongst emergency managers
that women are less competent than men after a disaster (Scanlon, 1997). Scanlon suggests
that emergency personnel generally attribute greater panic and confusion to women than
men and that this is unfounded. He refers to early academic writings to show that this idea
was promulgated by 'the first scholar in the field of Sociology of Disaster, Samuel Henry
Prince'. In writing about the 1917 Halifax explosion that killed 2,000 and injured 9,000
people, Prince drew on an unpublished manuscript by Dwight Johnstone, omitting ‘all the
positive references to women and the negative references to men’ (Scanlon, 1997, p. 4).
After Hurricane Katrina, the media ignored any considered coverage of how gender
influenced the way men and women experienced and were affected by the disaster, instead
focussing on archetypal characteristics of womanhood and linking it to helplessness, while
celebrating male heroes. As Elaine Enarson (2006) writes, ‘needy women’ and ‘strong men’
were presented. Other researchers, too, point out the negative portrayal of women in
disaster situations such as Hurricane Katrina, with female images ranging from the ‘old,
infirm, heavily pregnant or paralyzed’ (Boisseau, Feltey, Flynn, Gelfand, & Triece, 2008, p.
viii) to the vociferous with mothers’ outbursts against the conditions their children were
forced to live in; and then to blaming women for their inability to rescue those in their care
from the disaster and its aftermath. Boisseau et al. noted that female medical staff ‘who
remained behind with patients were vilified for “murdering” the patients who did not
survive’ (Boisseau et al., 2008, p. viii). For some women in New Orleans, their frustrations
post-disaster led to activism and the establishment of various women’s groups to improve
responses and bring change (David & Enarson, 2012; Tyler, 2007).
Historically, men have gained from women’s subjugation and this advantage to men
persists, with highly privileged men having the most to gain from maintenance of the status
quo. It is they who most often control what is published in both mainstream media and
academic journals, and indeed what is included in school and university curricula. Nancy
Tuana (2013) asks, ‘whose interests are served by the knowledge that mainstream science
deems worthy of development, and whose interests are served by the knowledge projects
that are overlooked or ignored’ (Tuana, 2013, p. 17). In rural areas, the interplay of media
and traditional power structures reinforce the stronger conservatism and patriarchy that
continues to characterise many rural communities:
The ‘doing of gender’ in everyday rural practices has with time ensured the
normalisation of hegemonic masculinity in everyday life. As a result men are more
likely than women to hold power in rural communities past and present, as
knowledge and power are facilitated by discourses shaped in rural communities
around hegemonic masculinity (Alston, 1995; Liepens, 1998). Research has
furthermore shown how the normalisation of patriarchal relations through discursive
practices is legitimised through the media (Agg and Phillips, 1998; Liepens, 2000),
whilst institutional patriarchal structures resistant to change reinforce them (Alston,
2005). (Eriksen, Gill, & Head, 2010, pp. 333-334)
Clearly, the impact of a disaster reflects the way a society is structured, with individuals
affected differently depending on gender as well as class, age, ethnicity and disability. Alice
Fothergill (1998) echoes this premise, writing that ‘social processes ... are more visible in
times of a disaster’ (Fothergill, 1998, p. 12). Disaster exacerbates and entrenches gender
inequalities, yet the gender differential operates even in ostensibly equal and enlightened
societies. Susanna Hoffman, an anthropologist, survived the 1991 Oakland firestorm in
California where 25 people died and 6,000 were left homeless. Five years later, she reflects
on the social impact of this disaster, particularly regarding a resurgence of defined gender
The Oakland Firestorm survivors to a large degree represented the pinnacle of
modern sexual definition ... The women of the community were independent, men
equitable, couples by and large egalitarian. People of both gender occupied the
same segments of space, public and private arenas, hours of day and night. [... But
for many after the fires, the] return of old behaviors and the loss of new was so
swift, so engulfing, and so unconscious, few understood what occurred. Many
unions, long and short, broke apart. (Hoffman, 1998, pp. 57-58)
Gendered roles were accompanied by age-old gendered slurs, as fire-affected women
sought to rebuild their lives. Negotiations with officials were impeded as women lacking
the import of men were dismissed, and their concerns disregarded:
The more insistent women were with insurance officials, the more we were
promoted to the second level of the 'difficult' category... By deeming women
'difficult' or more, of course, one removes them from individuality and places them
in a grouping where their complaints are rendered meaningless, and thus dismissible
... Over time not only insurance officials, but architects, contractors, and workers,
stereotyped us in this old cultural fashion and devalued our voice. (Hoffman, 1998, p.
When the standard is a white male (Kimmel, 2002), and measurements of normality are
formulated from him, disadvantages follow for women and non-whites. This androcentrism
extends beyond nuclear family formation and the workplace to psychological
interpretations of normality. Traditional counselling, for example, despite claims of
objectivity and neutrality, take a masculinist perspective, even blaming women for the
consequences of men’s oppression in the social order (Kahn, 2011). As Jessica Cundiff
In the late 20th century, mainstream psychological research was accused of being
“womanless” and “raceless” by excluding women and members of racial-ethnic
minority groups and by interpreting their experiences as deviant from White male
norms ... [This reflects] assumptions that men and Whites are more typical members
of the category “human” than are women and racial-ethnic minorities. (Cundiff,
2012, p. 158)
The gender inequities that privilege men and penalise women in the everyday are
heightened during disasters and their aftermath, creating what Elaine Enarson and Betty
Morrow (1998) term ‘gendered disaster vulnerability’.
The patriarchal dividend unequal shares in a bigger pie
Maleness ensures one dimension of privilege, and all men are advantaged to some degree
and in some circumstances because of their sex (Kahn, 2011). Yet, clearly, patriarchy values
some expressions of masculinity more highly than others. In Western societies,
characteristics associated with the ideal man are wealth, power, and heterosexuality, and
he exhibits bravery, strength, emotional stability he is logical, rational, decisive and self-
controlled (Austin, 2008; Coston & Kimmel, 2012). The modern notion of perfect maleness,
characterised by 'honor, athleticism, courage [and] physical toughness [is] ...sharpened by
countertypes of failed or unhealthy masculinities [with] the label “unmanly men” ascribed
to Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, idiots, and other marginal men' (Allen, 2002, p. 194). The
intersection of individual men’s characteristics determines their standing in the male
hegemony and their access to the patriarchal dividend (Pease, 2010b). Race, for example, is
obvious as mitigating privilege, with disability, sexuality and class as further sites of
compromised privilege (Austin, 2008; Coston & Kimmel, 2012; Dowd, 2010; Kimmel, 2002).
Shelley Pacholok (2009, p. 474) writes that ‘hegemonic masculinity cannot exist unless there
are subordinated Others ... who are constructed as deficient in some way’. The relationship
between hegemonic masculinity or the ‘masculinist paradigm’ (Kahn, 2011, p. 64) and
marginalised masculinities is two-fold. At one level, hegemonic masculinity is not inclusive
of the diverse ways men experience life and enact their lives, instead working to oppress
difference and foreground dominant masculine norms (Kahn, 2011). Yet, on another level,
men who embody marginalised masculinities are necessary for the concept and
reproduction of hegemonic masculinity as they obviate who is included and excluded
(Austin, 2008; Pease, 2010b). Indeed:
The prevailing system of patriarchy pushes certain voices out of the public sphere
and toward the periphery. This constant attack on marginalized voices maintains the
status quo and upholds ideologies that perpetuate sexism and gender violence.
(Phillips, 2012, p. 259)
Nevertheless, systemic gender inequality over-rides the unequal distribution of power and
reward to the competing versions of masculinity (Pease, 2012). The shares in the patriarchal
dividend may be unequal, but the pie for men is bigger.
Theories of sacrifice
The flipside to male privilege is the sacrifice expected of women. Gender is signified from
birth to ensure most people assume their expected gender role. Boys become men: leaders,
protectors and providers. Girls become women: mothers and nurturers first and foremost,
combined with responsibilities to bring in family income. This double load, long written
about, has not eased in the half century since women won the right to take on ‘men’s’ jobs
with career possibilities and financial rewards. Female parents, for example, spend more
than twice the time caring for children under 15 as male parents. In an average day,
mothers spend eight hours and 33 minutes while fathers spend three hours and 55 minutes
with their children (AHRC, 2013).
The everyday meaning of sacrifice’ is to give up something for a person or purpose
considered more important. It describes women’s lot in the same way ‘privilege’ describes
men’s. Women’s sacrifice has been so inscribed and so normalised that little has been
written in terms of the theory of sacrifice. Indeed, the theorisation of sacrifice is interpreted
differently by theology and philosophy scholars, and feminists have criticised it for
essentialising women or ignoring them as in a theorisation on sacrifice as being done by
‘man’ 50 years ago (Van Baaren, 1964). It seems little has changed, as Rene Girard’s oeuvre
on sacrifice, for example, has been rightly censured as reductionist and one-dimensional,
lacking any critique of women as protagonists or even as victims (Kirk-Duggan, 1994). Yet
within its rich and problematic body of theorisation, there are insights that link the data in
this research to the literature and assist our understanding.
The story of Jesus Christ encapsulates the key concepts of the theory of sacrifice and
provides an accessible introduction.
Sacrificial blood, the scapegoat, laying the foundations of a society through an act of
ritual murder these are sinister social constants. The Jewish extermination of the
Canaanites, the Christian crucifixion of the Messiah, the Muslim jihad of the Prophet
all shed the blood that blesses and sanctifies the monotheist cause ... the primitive
survives in the postmodern, the animal survives in man, the beast still dwells in
Homo sapiens. (Onfray, 2007, p. 198)
Christians believe that Jesus Christ suffered and died on the cross for their sins. There was
no ‘sacrifice of sacrifice’ as there is with martyrs and suicide bombers where their
motivation is heavenly reward (Dawkins, 2006; Keenan, 2005; Ptacek, 2006). Although the
characteristics of sacrifice have been variously and complexly described (Girard, 2005;
Keenan, 2005; Reineke, 1997; Weir, 1995), examination of the powerful cultural story of the
perfect sacrifice of Christ clarifies the elements.
There were many precursors to this ultimate sacrifice in the Gospels. The Old Testament of
the bible contains descriptions of sacrifices throughout, from Noah (Genesis 8: 20), through
to Abraham’s consent to murdering his own son, Isaac (Genesis 22: 1-13), through to
detailed directions on how to conduct sacrifices for various purposes (Leviticus 1: 1-17) (The
Holy Bible: King James Version, 1769). Obedience to God even to the sacrifice of one’s son
or to martyrdom was seen by Judeo-Christians as pleasing to God, and such sacrifice had
the potential to offer salvation to others (McBrien, 1995). It was Good Friday, though, that
appeared to represent the ultimate sacrificial logic.
According to the New Testament, a week after Palm Sunday, Pontius Pilate theatrically
washed his hands of Jesus, and gave in to the crowds clamouring for his crucifixion
(Matthew 27: 24) (McBrien, 1995; The Holy Bible: King James Version, 1769). The sacrifice
was planned, and Jesus of Nazareth knew what lay ahead, willingly playing his part.
His words regarding the cup of his blood being poured out for the many have
definite sacrificial overtones (cf. Mark 14:24). The setting of the Last Supper within
the context of the Passover celebration with the sacrificed lamb as the center of
the meal would have heightened awareness of Jesus’ sacrificial intentions.
(McBrien, 1995, p. 1151)
As Slavoj Žižek (2008) notes, Jesus of Nazareth gave himself as a scapegoat in order to save
everyone else. His was the perfect sacrifice as he was an innocent victim and the gain was
purely that of humankind. The deaths of the two common criminals who hung on crosses
either side of him were not sacrificial deaths, they were not innocent and therefore not
worthy of being sacrificed (Žižek, 2008). Jesus was an outsider in some respects his was
not a noble birth, he kept company with prostitutes, he was ostracised by those who held
power, he was controversial, disrupting and undermining commercial and justice processes
and ideology. There was veneration before execution. Girard (2005) describes sacrificial
settings that encompass veneration of the scapegoat before the execution, and Palm
Sunday a week before the crucifixion exemplified this when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a
donkey to the rapturous reception of crowds throwing their coats on the ground for the
donkey to walk on, waving palm branches and welcoming him. There was a public ritual
over many gruelling hours, epitomising formal state-sanctioned violence, the effect of which
was to unite society and lead to (a period of) cohesion and calm.
Girard writes that ‘the concept can be traced back to spontaneous unanimity, to the
irresistible conviction that compels an entire community to vent its fury on a single
individual’ (Girard, 2005, p. 314) and extends this argument to assert that ‘there can be
nothing in the whole range of human culture that is not rooted in violent unanimity
nothing that does not find its source in the surrogate victim’ (Girard, 2005, p. 312). It is a
short step from the scapegoat ritual to the legally sanctioned death penalty (Girard, 2005, p.
313). Roland Boer draws on Julia Kristeva’s writing to clarify further:
Here is Kristeva: ‘Sacrifice is an offering that, out of a substance, creates Meaning for
the Other and, consequently, for the social group that is dependent on it’ (Kristeva
1987: 142-3). In other words, you obliterate something concrete a red heifer, a
goat, a human being in order to produce the abstract sense of the group. The most
common way in which that happens is to transfer the group’s ‘sins’ symbolically onto
the scapegoat and then cast all this evil out of the community by banishing the
scapegoat for the wellbeing of the community. (Boer, 2007, p. 165)
The remedy offered by scapegoats is time-limited however, and modern-day rabbles
demand regular blood-letting, emulating those before Pontius Pilate’s balcony (Matthew 27:
22-24) (The Holy Bible: King James Version, 1769). For example, the death of terrorist
Osama bin Laden in 2011 operated as a sacrificial logic, with a United States populace
unified in celebration afterwards, reinforcing this theory.
Women as scapegoats
When searching for a unifying factor in his compilation of sacrificial victims (which included
slaves, prisoners of war and children) Girard drew from this disparate group what was
What we are dealing with, therefore, are exterior or marginal individuals, incapable
of establishing or sharing the social bonds that link the rest of the inhabitants. Their
status as foreigners or enemies, their servile condition, or simply their age prevents
these future victims from fully integrating themselves into the community. (Girard,
2005, p. 12)
The purpose of a scapegoat is to shift violence onto a victim who does not matter. If the
chosen victim mattered to the community, violence could instead escalate through
retribution. A dispensable victim the suffering and death of whom will cause no great
reprisal is what is needed (Girard, 2005). Girard (2005, p. 13) ponders the notion of
women as sacrificeable, agreeing that, ‘in many cultures women are not considered full-
fledged members of their society’. He concludes they were rarely chosen in ritualistic
sacrifice, though, probably because of their familial ties and status as ‘in some respects ‘the
property of her husband and his family’ (Girard, 2005, p. 13). Yet, the identification of
women as excluded ‘other’ has been well theorised (de Beauvoir, 1983, first published 1949;
Kristeva, 1981; Moi, 1986; Weir, 1995) and the dominant religions, too, perceive women as
unimportant, even detestable (Onfray, 2007) and not truly human (Dawkins, 2006). As
Alison Jasper further notes:
Christian patterns of sex and gender are aligned within a dichotomous, hierarchical
relation between masculine divinity and feminized humankind that work out to the
detriment of the latter or even to its exclusion ... all the pain and disorder of human
life is represented in a catastrophic narrative about the putting to death of God, for
which Eve, standing in for her whole gender, is regarded as the ultimate cause.
(Jasper, 2013, p. 281)
Women as a group indeed provide the necessary qualification for sacrifice essentially
because they are outsiders, and according to accounts including those above, blameworthy.
Renegotiating gender boundaries in disaster
The founding and all-encompassing sacrifice of women is based on identity, and identity,
according to Weir, is ‘the product of a sacrificial logic, a logic of domination’ (1995, p. 3). In
assuming an identity based on gendered expectations, the innate identity of a woman is
These questions of individual identity are related to questions of women’s identity
and of gender identity: what does it mean to ‘be’ a woman, or a man? ... any identity
is necessarily repressive of difference, of non-identity, or of connection. (Weir, 1995,
pp. 1,3)
Assuming any identity necessarily sacrifices what has not been assumed, and domination
ensures ‘members’ of the group comply. Compliance with this foundational social contract,
however, does not guarantee acceptance of it. Thirty years ago, Kristeva observed that a
new generation of women was unhappy that they were ‘forced to experience this sacrificial
contract against their will’ (1981, p. 25). Central to the socio-symbolic contract (and central
to their objection) is the universal definition of man and mankind as the absolute human
type, with woman merely ‘relative to’ and ‘other than’ (de Beauvoir, 1983, first published
1949; Kristeva, 1981; Weir, 1995).
She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to
her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the
Subject, he is the Absolute she is the Other. (de Beauvoir, 1983, first published
1949, p. 16)
The identity of man and mankind indeed relies on the exclusion of woman. To include
women as part of mankind would be to negate the identity men have forged for themselves
as men. The initial sacrificial logic which claims identity by repressing difference is, for
women, problematic. Western feminists have taken their struggle against oppression in
both pragmatic and ideological directions. On the one hand, demanding equality within the
current sociosymbolic order, and on the other refusing it entirely because it relies upon the
sacrifice of women (Weir, 1995). Kristeva asks:
What can be our place in the symbolic contract? If the social contract ... is based on
an essentially sacrificial relationship of separation and articulation of differences ...
what is our place in this order of sacrifice and/or of language? No longer wishing to
be excluded or no longer content with the function which has always been
demanded of us (to maintain, arrange, and perpetuate this sociosymbolic contract as
mothers, wives, nurse, doctors, teachers ...), how can we reveal our place, first as it
is bequested to us by tradition, and then as we want to transform it? (Kristeva, 1981,
pp. 23-24)
Keen to overturn the homogeneity the notion of ‘woman’ evokes in our patriarchal society,
Toril Moi points to Kristeva’s conclusion that ‘the struggle is no longer concerned with the
quest for equality but, rather, with difference and specificity’ (Moi, 1986, p. 196). Women’s
identity is to be claimed in its own right, not simply as the complement to a male identity.
Women are not the other half to men’s first half. Women’s identity is irreducible, ‘without
equal in the opposite sex, and as such, exploded, plural, fluid’ (1986, p. 194).
In stark contrast, gender as a simple dichotomy is used as the primary basis of privilege and
disadvantage and misinterpreted as ‘two internally homogeneous and mutually exclusive
categories of individual attributes’ (Bolin et al., 1998, p. 30). Interestingly, Condren (1995)
draws on the work of Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray and Nancy Jay to explore the significance
of sacrificial discourse to political violence in Ireland and the ways in which a gendered
social order is produced and reproduced. She writes that, taken together, these theorists
‘provide the means of understanding what happens when the social order is up for
renegotiation ... and also the chaos upon which men must then impose meaning and
civilization’ (1995, p. 165). The aftermath of disaster is such a time.
In the private domain particularly related to domestic violence and acts of hyper-
masculinity observed and noted amongst men in the early months after Black Saturday
(Bachelard, 10.5.09; Johnston & Mickelburough, 2010; Parkinson, 2012a; Saeed, 2009; Zara
& Parkinson, 2013) the parallels with Condren’s allegory of the Irish troubles are clear. She
writes: ‘Acts of transgression are not gender neutral as some contemporary theorists of
transgression might imply or ague but act to renegotiate boundaries on behalf of the
dominant group’ (1995, p. 168) and referred to the wartime patriarchal discourses and
increased violence against women which directly responded to the suffragist movement
(1995). In the public domain, this is evident in the male domination of emergency services
and the management of disaster recovery:
Women are relegated to taking care of the corpse, (the abject) and the realm of the
“private”, while the public funeral rituals are appropriated by men in ways that
reinforce the public private split in favour of a male dominant economy. (Condren,
1995, p. 164)
Men grasped the opportunity for a public presence and women were relegated to the
private sphere. As in war and revolution, the post-disaster period reinforces patriarchy and
male hegemony. As Condren writes, ‘These are the dream of a “world without women”
related to the concern for immortality; male heroism and perfect manhood’ (1995, p. 166).
With the patriarchal dividend at stake, why would men not use every opportunity to ensure
their ongoing privilege?
No windfall for women in disaster
As women are generally poorer than men, they are more likely to live in areas that are more
susceptible to disaster and housing that is poorly constructed (Dasgupta, Siriner, & Partha,
2010; Neumayer & Plümper, 2007b; Scanlon, 1998; Seager, 2006) and are less likely to have
the resources to escape if a disaster threatens (Henrici, Helmuth, & Braun, 2010). While
women in the developing world are at greater risk of death, women in the developed world
have increased risk of economic insecurity; increased workload; increased conflict in the
home, the community and the workplace and fewer supports for workforce participation
(Enarson, 2000a; Hazeleger, 2013; Phillips & Morrow, 2008; Shaw et al., 2012). Dobson
identified a ‘new social order’ operating after the Charleville flood in Queensland one
where demands on women were excessive (1994, p. 11). She observed that women were
expected to work harder than men in all arenas women’s and men’s work, paid and
unpaid work (Dobson, 1994). In the United States context, the situation is worse for women
who are outside the ‘protection’ or ‘control’ of a man, and as a result, even more vulnerable
to financial insecurity: single mothers, widows, divorced women and lesbians were noted to
‘conspicuously lack access to male-controlled relief and recovery resources’ (Enarson &
Phillips, 2008, p. 51).
Economic insecurity and the patriarchal social structure both contribute to increased
vulnerability for women in a time of disaster as women’s financial situation is frequently
hindered further by caring responsibilities and inequitable access to financial aid (Enarson &
Phillips, 2008). Women ‘are treated differently to men at every step from the initial warning
period when women and children are pressured to leave, but men are often allowed to stay
behind; through the immediate post-impact period when men may leave their families to
assist others ...; to the relief and recovery period when women, especially single parents,
may be left out of the relief process' (Scanlon, 1998, p. 46). Economic recovery post-disaster
is predominantly directed to employers or projects involving male labour, while women in
disaster-prone areas are often employed in low status jobs and in sectors which do not
attract support (Enarson, 2006).
Low wage women employed at the lowest rungs of the tourist industry and as
beauticians, child care workers, home health aides, servers and temporary office
workers will not be helped back on their feet by economic recovery plans geared to
major employers in the formal sector. (Enarson, 2006, para. 6)
Other studies confirm that disasters affect women more acutely than men and that men are
favoured by recovery efforts and funding allocation (Dasgupta et al., 2010; Molin Valdés,
2009). Elaine Enarson offers a summary:
First, women’s economic insecurity increases, as their productive assets are
destroyed, they often become sole earners, their household entitlements may
decline, their small-businesses are hard-hit, they lose jobs and work time, and
gender stereotypes limit their work opportunities. Second, women’s workload
increases dramatically. They often take on more waged or other forms of income-
generating work; engage in a number of new forms of “disaster work,” including
emergency response and political organizing; and have expanded responsibilities as
caregivers. Third, women’s working conditions in the household and paid workplace
deteriorate, for example through lack of child-care and increased work and family
conflicts. Fourth, women recover more slowly than men from major economic
losses, as they are less mobile than male workers, likely to return to paid work later,
and often fail to receive equitable financial recovery assistance from the government
and/or external donors. (Enarson, 2000a, p. viii)
Women’s inferior economic power contributes directly to vulnerability to male violence
(True, 2012). VicHealth notes that ‘the most significant determinants of violence against
women are the unequal distribution of power and resources between men and women
[and] an adherence to rigidly defined gender roles’, and further, that economic dependence
increases barriers to disclosing domestic violence and seeking support (VicHealth, 2007;
2011, p. 1).
Gender and violence
Domestic violence is predominantly that of men’s violence against women. It is both
gendered and asymmetrical (UN, 1993; VicHealth, 2011) as women’s violence is often in
self-defence or retaliation, and ‘does not equate to men’s in terms of frequency, severity,
consequences and the victim’s sense of safety and well-being’ (Dobash & Dobash, 2004, p.
324; Kimmel, 2013). The nomenclature used to describe men’s violence against women is
extensive. Terms include domestic violence, family violence, relationship violence, intimate
partner violence, spousal abuse, wife beating and battery with more complex definitions of
‘abusive household gender regime’ (Morris, 2009, p. 414), ‘control-initiated’ and ‘conflict-
driven’ (Ellis & Stuckless, 1996, cited in Wangmann, 2011, p. 3).
Other terms consider motivations or situations identified as ‘pathological violence’, ‘anti-
social violence’ (Pence & Dasgupta, 2006, pp. 12-13), ‘within the perpetrator’, ‘within
couple’, and its relation to ‘potent stressors’ (Johnston & Campbell, 1993, p. 191). Influential
theorists Kelly and Johnson sought to categorise different kinds of domestic violence in
order to accurately measure it and effectively intervene, and their early terminology
included such terms as ‘patriarchal terrorism’, ‘intimate terrorism’, ‘common-couple
violence’, ‘mutual combat’ and ‘violent resistance’ (2008, pp. 477-478, 485; see also
Debbonaire, 2008; Gondolf, 2007; Johnson, 1995). These were refined in 2008 to categories
of ‘coercive controlling violence’, ‘violent resistance’, ‘situational couple violence’,
‘separational couple violence’, ‘separation-instigated violence’ and ‘mutual violent control’
(Kelly & Johnson, 2008, p. 477). One highly influential theory of domestic violence since the
early 1990s is the ‘Duluth model’ (see Figure 1) which hypothesises that domestic violence is
a pattern springing from male privilege of coercion, intimidation, isolation, emotional
and financial abuse, and which may involve exploitation of children. The model was
conceptualised by a ‘power and control wheel’ – since expanded with different versions,
including one on disaster (see Figure 2) (Domestic Abuse Intervention Project, n.d. circa
1993; Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, n.d.).
Figure 1: The Duluth Model Power and Control Wheel (Domestic Abuse Intervention Project, n.d. circa 1993)
Figure 2: Natural Disaster Power and Control Wheel (Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, n.d.)
Theorists sought to develop a typology of domestic violence to allow deeper understanding
and more targeted interventions, yet the various terms and concepts are controversial and
disputed (Wangmann, 2011). Both practitioners and theorists debate the role of
confounding factors (such as alcohol abuse or mental illness), gender asymmetry and type
of male perpetrators, as well as notions of control, the role of men in prevention, research
methodology, and whether a focus on physical violence is misplaced (Dutton & Corvo, 2007;
Flood, 2006; Foran & O'Leary, 2008; Gondolf, 1988; Gondolf, 2007; Gottman, 2001;
Jacobson, Gottman, & Shortt, 1995; Johnson, 1995; Pease, 2008; Stark, 2006, 2010;
Wangmann, 2011).
The legal status of domestic violence in Victoria, and the legal context within which this
research occurred is defined in the Family Violence Protection Act 2008 ("Family Violence
Protection Act ", 2008) as ‘behaviour by a person towards a family member of that person if
that behaviour (i) is physically or sexually abusive’ (See Definition of Terms). The health
promotion approach in Victoria is to view domestic violence as prevalent, serious and
Too often intimate partner violence is trivialised in our society as somehow being
less serious than violence committed in other contexts; as a matter to be resolved in
the privacy of the home [yet ... it] is the leading preventable contributor to death,
disability and illness in Victorian women aged 1544, being responsible for more of
the disease burden than many well-known risk factors such as high blood pressure,
smoking and obesity. (VicHealth, 2004, pp. 8, 10)
Gender and disaster
Disasters magnify both the strengths and the weaknesses in society so the way gender is
constructed influences how women and men are affected by disaster (Domeisen, 1998;
Seager, 2006).
Disaster phenomena necessarily involve all the basic dimensions and processes of
social life. It is after all an old saw in common sayings and philosophical musings that
crises lay bare the essence of personal and social life. (Quarantelli, 1994, p. 4)
Internationally, research literature on gender and disaster emerged only in the late 1990s,
led by influential disaster and gender scholar, Elaine Enarson (1998) and her colleagues. In
1994, Quarantelli (1994) included gender as one of a number of disaster phenomena that
warrant researchers’ attention, and in 1998, Fothergill (1998), Domeisen (1998) and Bolin et
al. (1998) called for more gendered research into disaster to address its absence in the
disaster literature. Scanlon (1998) identifies that gender blindness limits understanding of
disaster. Over a decade later, Maureen Fordham (2008) writes that this body of research is
still small and mostly located within ‘Third World’ studies. In an overview of 141 countries,
Eric Neumayer and Thomas Plümper (2007b) claim that their research report was ‘the first
systematic, quantitative analysis of gender differences in natural disaster mortality’
(Neumayer & Plümper, 2007b, p. 4). They describe it as addressing ‘one important, yet
hitherto relatively neglected aspect (WHO 2002)’ of disaster scholarship (2007, p. 2).
Higher global female mortality in disasters
Across the globe, women are at greater risk in disasters than men (Dasgupta et al., 2010;
Domeisen, 1998; Neumayer & Plümper, 2007b; Phillips, Jenkins & Enarson, 2009), with a
higher disaster mortality rate for women than men in developing countries (Domeisen,
1998; Neumayer & Plümper, 2007b). The risk exists both during the disaster and in the
recovery period that follows (Alston, 2009). The common factor in recent tsunamis,
earthquakes, and hurricanes has been that the great majority of victims are women,
children and other vulnerable groups (Phillips, Thomas, Fothergill & Blinn-Pike, 2010).
Historically, too, the figures are stacked against women’s and children’s survival. For
example, ‘considerable excess mortality occurred amongst adult females’ in both the 1948
and 1966 Russian earthquakes (Rivers, 1982, p. 257). In one, the Ashkabad earthquake, of
the 33,000 who died, only 18 per cent were men: 47 per cent were women and 35 per cent
were children. In the second, in Tashkent, 20 per cent more women died than men (Beinin,
1981, cited in Rivers, 1982, p. 257). Such differential mortality rates are most probably the
result of gender-determined roles with their separate expectations and exposures to risk
(Molin Valdés, 2009; Rivers, 1982). One explanation offered was women’s responsibility for
children which hampered escape, but Rivers (Rivers, 1982) goes further to question the
veracity of the notion of ‘women and children first’, citing that in 1879, when the Atlantic
steamship sank between Liverpool and New York, all but one of the 295 women on board
died, compared to 187 of the 636 men. The disaster literature reveals other examples:
In [one] Indian earthquake, more women and children [than men] died, with women
aged 25-29 most affected (Parasuraman 1995). In this disaster, men’s work and
schooling had taken them out of the village when the earthquake hit. In an
earthquake in Guatemala, more women were injured than men (Glass et al. 1977),
and in an earthquake in Cairo, Egypt, more females were killed or injured than males
(Malilay et al. 1995). In the Bangladesh Cyclone of 1991, 42% more females died
than males (Chowdhury et al. 1993). (Fothergill, 1998, p. 18).
Two other examples indicate palpable discrimination against women and children. In the
Bangladesh cyclone of 1991, ‘one desperate father, unable to hold on to both his son and
daughter, let go of his daughter, acknowledging that he did so because his son had to carry
on the family line (Haider at al, 1991, cited in Fothergill, 1998, p. 18), and Rivers (1982, cited
in Phillips & Morrow, 2008, p. 28) reporting on a famine, provided a local man’s quote, ‘Stop
all this rubbish, it is we men who shall have the food, let the children die, we will make new
children after the war’.
In the more recent Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004, 80 per cent of the 300,000 deaths were
women and children from 13 nations (Phillips & Morrow, 2008). More recently, a 2012 study
of 18 maritime disasters spanning 15,000 people from 30 nationalities over 300 years finds
that women have a survival rate of only half that of men, and concludes that ‘women have a
distinct survival disadvantage compared with men’, particularly in British shipwrecks (Elinder
& Erixson, 2012, p. 13220). The notion of ‘women and children first’ has indeed been proved
to be a myth and unsupportable as a reason to deny equal opportunity to women.
The effect of disaster on women may be easier to observe and document in developing
countries where discrimination is more apparent, yet, the differential effect of disaster on
women and men is evident in the developed world too (Domeisen, 1998; Fothergill, 1998;
Phillips, Jenkins et al., 2010). For example, there is a contention from the United States to
suggest more men than women are killed in disasters caused by severe weather events
including lightning, thunderstorms, flash floods and hurricanes (Fothergill, 1998). One
explanation is that men take greater risks than women, and are more often involved in
outdoor activities (Neumayer & Plümper, 2007b; Tyler & Fairbrother, 2013b).
Contrasting evidence, however, indicates approximately equal mortality rates. Known death
rates after Hurricane Katrina were almost the same for males (50.6 per cent) and females
(49.3 per cent) (Jonkman, Maaskant, Boyd, & Lloyd Levitan, 2009). In Australia, deaths of
females from bushfires was steadily increasing over the three decades leading to Black
Saturday, approaching equal mortality rates with males (DeLaine, Probert, Pedler,
Goodman, & Rowe, 2008; Haynes et al., 2008). On Black Saturday, females comprised 42 per
cent of deaths (Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission, 2010b).
Ultimately, women are vulnerable because of the power differential that characterises
gender relations in every country (True, 2012). Henrici, et al. (2010) outlined the reasons for
this differential in disasters:
Women in most regions share a greater responsibility for child care than men and
more often than men have the home as their workplace, with residences often of
less stable construction than commercial or public buildings. Women who are
pregnant or recovering from childbirth have limited mobility and face additional
difficulties during disasters. Women also make up a greater proportion of the
elderly, typically one of the groups with the highest mortality rates during disasters
... Women also face a high risk of gender-based violence. (Henrici et al., 2010, p. 2)
In Australia, women are often left with the sole responsibility for the family and property
because socially determined roles mean that women are likely to be separated from a male
partner in a disaster as he defends the home or is an employed or volunteer fire-fighter
(Eriksen et al., 2010; Honeycombe, 1994; Raphael, Taylor, & McAndrew, 2008). There are
many reasons for women being alone, however, and assumptions that male partners are
fighting the fires are themselves gendered, stereotyped and over-estimated. Less than a
third of those who died in the Black Saturday fires attempted to defend their property
(Handmer, O’Neil, & Killalea, 2010). Analysis of 1314 questionnaire responses from people
affected by fires on Black Saturday showed that just half (53 per cent) of respondents
attempted to defend properties. Of these:
A greater proportion of men (56%) intended to stay and defend throughout the fire
than women (42%), who more often wanted to leave as soon as a fire was
threatening than men ... Reflecting the data on intended responses, a greater
proportion of men (62%) stayed and defended than women (42%). Most stayed to
protect assets from the fires (83%); however, some stayed because they felt it was
too late to leave (9%) or because their attempts to leave were unsuccessful (3%).
(Whittaker, Haynes, Handmer, & McLennan, 2013, p. 845)
Indeed, the reality is, as Christine Eriksen writes, that ‘[M]en … often take control and
perform protective roles that many have neither the knowledge nor the ability to safely
attempt to fulfil’ (Eriksen, 2014, p. 39). Gendered responsibility leaves women to evacuate
with dependents in circumstances of high risk. A 2008 Australian report stated that most
women perish while sheltering in the house or attempting to flee beyond the time for safe
evacuations (Haynes et al., 2008). The worst bushfires on record in Australia before Black
Saturday were the Ash Wednesday bushfires in 1983, in which 28 people died in South
Australia and 47 in Victoria. Immediately after these fires, Paul Valent (1984) documented
his personal observations in two communities over a seven week period, writing that people
felt guilty and ashamed at not living up to roles expected of them. Many people, including
women alone, thought they were going to die, and ' fear set in among those at home,
intense longing was felt for the absent protectors, which led to frantic telephone calls and
more direct calls through tears and screams' (Valent, 1984, p. 293). Decades later, little had
changed, as women were found to frequently rely on the knowledge of their partners
(Gilbert, 2007), and if household members with more bushfire knowledge and experience
are away at the time of a fire, women are left to face the incident not knowing what to do or
how to operate equipment (DeLaine et al., 2008).
In her analysis of female mortality in disasters worldwide, Fothergill (1998) provides
explanations from the literature for their higher mortality than men. Her question as to
whether more women died because 'their husbands had the decision-making powers and
they did not dare leave without their husband's permission’ and that ‘women were left
responsible for property and [could have been] afraid of blame and punishment’ raises
issues which might equally apply to the Australian bushfire context. In the study on men’s
experiences after Black Saturday, two quotations revealed this to be the case:
Look, there are a lot of tough women up here that made brilliant decisions, and are a
little bit more logical than a lot of the blokes up here. But in general, the percentage
of the women that would have said, 'Right, no, you're not staying, get in the car,
we're going, it’s only a bloody house', would have been 1 or 2 per cent. Most of the
blokes would have said, 'This is my bloody house, I built it, I worked my arse off the
last 25 years, I'm not leaving this joint, blah, blah'. And the wife would say, 'Are you
sure we're going to be alright?’ 'Yeah, yeah, we'll be alright'. And I know a few
families that perished like that. (Zara & Parkinson, 2013, p. 25)
I have first-hand knowledge that there are women, wives, on Black Saturday who
wanted to leave town and their husband said, ‘No, we’re staying to fight this’. And
they stayed to fight and they both died. (Zara & Parkinson, 2013, p. 25)
Men’s use of domestic violence adds to the risk posed by natural disaster, as women’s
preparation and evacuations strategies are limited by concessions to controlling partners or
more directly by lack of options, such as transport. Where women and children have left
violent men, their new visibility and potentially shared emergency accommodation exposes
them to danger from their ex-partner in addition to the danger from the impending disaster.
Other women may have no choice but to rely on abusive partners to keep a roof over their
heads, both during and after disasters (Fothergill, 1999; Fothergill, 2008; Houghton, 2009b;
Jenkins & Phillips, 2008a). Ignorance of this vulnerability by community and emergency
management endangers women (Fothergill, 2008; Phillips, Jenkins et al., 2010; Wilson,
Phillips, & Neal, 1998). As Enarson (2012) notes, evacuation is even more challenging for
women who have no freedom to act, and are trapped in unsafe home environments. An
Australian domestic violence crisis line worker heard from one woman in this situation the
night before Black Saturday. She said this memory continues to haunt her:
I received a call from a woman at around 3 in the morning. She told me the history of
abuse from her partner - it is honestly, abuse that is much too gruesome and
personal to repeat here ... Then she told me that people in her town were enacting
their bushfire plans because it was a bushfire region. She said that her plan was
always to leave early, but tonight, after abusing her, her partner took the keys to the
car and said, “I hope there IS a bushfire tomorrow and I hope you die in it.” And then
he took the car and left. She had no other plan for getting away. I suggested she seek
help from neighbours, she said they were 2 Ks away, it's the middle of the night, she
doesn't want to tell them what's going on ... and she hated the idea of the 'stigma'
around staying in a women's refuge. We explored if her mother would come and
pick her up and bring her back to Melbourne. This woman wanted none of these
things, she said she would just take her chances with the bushfire. And that's actually
how the call ended. (Cooper, 2012, Identifying the Hidden Disaster Conference,
Australian context for gender and disaster research
Perhaps the first foray into Australian gender and disaster research was a 1983 study, which
assessed the psychological and physical health of 37 women whose homes had been
destroyed in the Macedon Ranges bushfires and considered the association between locus
of control and use of social supports (Wallace, 1983). In 1992, Australian researchers were
encouraged to look at post-disaster stress in the context of both the individual and the
family (Gordon, 1992, p. 15). Then in 1993, as previously noted, there was a spike of interest
prompted by the Symposium on Women in Emergencies and Disasters held in Mackay,
Queensland, Australia (Fuller, 1994). Calls for disaster research that considers social and
gendered aspects followed. One emphasised the need for qualitative research, writing of
the potentially significant role that women could play in disaster preparedness and response
if more was known about how everyone in the community is affected by disaster (Williams,
1994). In 1998, Christine Finlay’s chapter on her interviews with 20 women about their
experiences of flooding in 1990-1991 in Giru, Northern Queensland was included in Enarson
and Morrow’s The Gendered Terrain of Disaster (Enarson & Morrow, 1998; Finlay, 1998). In
this chapter, Finlay considered the notion of women being ‘problematic’ in floods and the
social space women occupy (Finlay, 1998). She writes:
Feminists have argued that women's meanings and experiences have been
epistemologically excluded in mainstream literature and a search of disaster
literature confirms this claim [...] Disasters have, in the main, been represented as
gender-neutral and women have been portrayed rarely and negatively. (Finlay, 1998,
pp. 143, 149)
In 2003, DeLaine et al. (2008). reiterated that there was little gendered disaster research in
Australia. Few had responded to the call for more research by 2009, when Caruana (2009)
wrote that despite a vast literature on the psychosocial effect of disasters on individuals,
little was known about the effect on families. Even more broadly, some advocated engaging
whole communities in reflecting on their disaster experience, due to its therapeutic value as
well as adding to the research base (Camilleri et al., 2007).
Key researchers who were addressing the gap in Australian gender and disaster research
prior to Black Saturday include Christine Eriksen, who has made significant contributions to
the sparse literature and continues with a 2014 book that compares the gendered
dimensions of wildfire in Australia and the west coast of the United States (Eriksen, 2014). In
2008, Mae Proudley (2008) pointed to the lack of research into the role of women in
bushfires, the impact of disaster on families, and how decisions are made in emergency
situations. The Black Saturday bushfires in 2009 appear to have sparked renewed interest in
sociological and gendered aspects of disaster with more published research from Proudley
(2013), from Carole Shaw, Judith van Unen and Virgina Lang (2012) Tricia Hazeleger (2013),
Meagan Tyler and Peter Fairbrother (Tyler, 2013; Tyler & Fairbrother, 2013a; Tyler &
Fairbrother, 2013b; Tyler et al., 2012), and Katharine Haynes and Joshua Whittaker
(Whittaker et al., 2013). Research papers are forthcoming from Connie Kellett on anger
discourses after Black Saturday, and Lisa Gibbs et al. on the social impacts of disaster, both
part of the University of Melbourne-led Beyond Bushfires: Community Resilience and
Recovery survey. The 5-year study is a mixed methods longitudinal study with surveys in
2012, 2014 and if funds permit, in 2016 (Gibbs et al., 2013).
Disaster and domestic violence
In 2008, research on domestic violence after disaster in the developed world was almost
non-existent, leaving the question of whether domestic violence increases post-disaster
largely unanswered (Clemens et al., 1999; Fothergill, 1999; Fothergill, 2008; Jenkins &
Phillips, 2008b). Such research remains scarce (Caruana, 2009; Forbes & Creamer, 2009;
Houghton, 2009a; Houghton, 2009b; Sety, 2012). Qualitative data sourced through women’s
participation, in particular, is rare. It appears that only Fothergill has published similar
research to this thesis (Fothergill, 1999; 2008) with two case studies from a study of 60
women after the Grand Forks flood. Although Helen Cox (1998) conducted qualitative
research with 40 women on how women experienced and recovered from bushfire in
Australia, there were no findings on violence.
By way of explanation, Rosborough, Chan and Palmer (2009) write that few researchers
tackle gender-based violence in disasters because it is difficult to study. Inadequate data
and documentation to capture reports to police and services post-disaster mean that
quantifying domestic violence is both methodologically and practically difficult (Jenkins &
Phillips, 2008a). To date research has largely focused on domestic violence agency data or
domestic violence workers as informants (Houghton, 2009a; Houghton, 2009b; Houghton,
2010; Santa Cruz Commission for the Prevention of Violence Against Women, 1990; Wilson
et al., 1998).
Yet evidence to support the hypothesis of increased violence against women after disaster is
growing (Dasgupta et al., 2010; Enarson, 2000b; Molin Valdés, 2009; Palinkas, Downs,
Petterson, & Russell, 1993; Phillips & Morrow, 2008; Wilson et al., 1998). A 1998 review of
approximately 100 studies, situated in both developed and developing countries, addresses
gender in disaster scholarship (Fothergill, 1998) and includes several studies that indicate an
increase in domestic violence following disaster (see also Dasgupta et al., 2010). For
example, after Hurricane Andrew in 1992, analysis of domestic violence helpline statistics
showed a 50 per cent increase (Fothergill, 1998). Demand for refuge accommodation
increased, and court cases for injunctions increased by 98 per cent and in the first four
months following the 1997 earthquake in Dale County, Alabama, reports of domestic
violence increased by 600 per cent (Wilson et al., 1998). A study of 77 Canadian and U.S.
domestic violence programs echoes these findings, concluding that violence against women
increases in the period following disasters (Enarson, 1999). Yet compiling a sound evidence
base on rates of violence against women after disaster is not easy:
[T]here is a suggestion that the stress of disaster may lead to increased violence,
making battered women greater targets than at other times. However … it was
difficult to acquire empirical data to demonstrate that this was the case, and
impossible to document it. (Scanlon, 1997, p. 5)
This was written in 1997 and ten years later, little had changed:
...the research on woman battering in post-disaster communities is still almost non-
existent. In the disaster research community, many question whether rates of
woman battering increase in a disaster. Thus, although this question has been
frequently asked, it remains largely unanswered. (Fothergill, 2008, p. 131)
In Enarson and Morrow’s influential text, The Gendered Terrain of Disaster (1998) the link
between disaster and domestic violence was explored, principally in Wilson, Phillips and
Neal’s chapter, ‘Domestic Violence after Disaster’ (Wilson et al., 1998). The following year,
Fothergill’s (1999) article, mentioned earlier, comparing two case studies of women who
experienced domestic violence after the 1997 Grand Forks flood was published. That same
year, another study of the Grand Forks flood, this time by Clemens et al. (1999), reported on
their cross-sectional survey of 140 adults. Their sample comprised 73 females and 64 men
(with three missing data) and indicates that domestic violence was significantly greater
among respondents after the flood (Clemens et al., 1999).
Over the next decade, research on domestic violence after disaster in developed countries
was primarily advanced through the work of a core group of disaster researchers, principally
Elaine Enarson, Maureen Fordham, Betty Morrow and Brenda Phillips. Between 2008 and
2010, key papers articulating the link between disaster and domestic violence were written
in the context of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina by Jenkins, Phillips and Enarson (Jenkins
& Phillips, 2008a, 2008b; Phillips, Jenkins et al., 2010), by Schumacher, et al. (2010) and by
Henrici et al. (2010). In 2012, Enarson wrote an overview in her book, Women Confronting
Natural Disaster: From Disaster to Resilience (2012), in which she notes that 400 per cent
more women and children than expected sought shelter from the anti-violence coalition
after the 1993 Missouri River Flood. In 2010, it was reported that domestic violence calls
from Louisiana to the national hot line increased by 20 per cent in the first two months after
the oil spill (US Gender and Disaster Resilience Alliance, 2010). In Haiti, gender based
violence ‘dramatically escalated’ after the earthquake, with an estimated 230 rapes of
women and girls in 15 of the camps in Port-au-Prince, and with Doctors Without Borders
treating 68 rape survivors in one facility in the month of April (Bookey, 2010, pp. 7-8).
A significant finding by Anastario et al. (2009) is that increased gender based violence after
Hurricane Katrina remained higher than twice the baseline rate even two years later
according to a survey of 420 displaced women. Anastario, et al. describe their findings:
When we sub-classified physical IPV [inter-personal violence] in our random sample,
women showed a lifetime prevalence of 34.7% and a post-disaster rate of 7.7% in
2007, suggesting that IPV in this population is particularly high for a disaster-affected
population in the United States. Such increases in our sample reflect alarmingly
elevated rates of new violence, which did not settle back to baseline during the two
years following displacement, escalating from a lifetime estimate of 3.1/100,000 per
day to 9.4/100,000 per day in 2006 and up to 10.1/100,000 per day in 2007.
(Anastario et al., 2009, p. 22)
In another study, Schumacher et al. (2010) sought to determine the prevalence of intimate
partner violence, comparing the six month periods before and after Hurricane Katrina. They
found a 35 per cent increase in the prevalence of psychological victimisation amongst
women and an astounding 98 per cent increase in physical victimisation. For men, there was
a 17 per cent increase in psychological violence and, equally astounding, no change in
physical violence. They conclude, 'Although this study focused only on residents of
Mississippi in the wake of Hurricane Katrina [in 2005], the current study provides compelling
evidence that risk of IPV is increased following large-scale disasters’ (Schumacher et al.,
2010, p. 601). In New Zealand, disaster researcher Rosalind Houghton reports significant
increases in domestic violence after disasters, and further endangerment of women already
at risk with a doubling and tripling of workload for domestic violence agencies and a
doubling of police callouts in New Zealand after the Whakatane flood in 2004 (2009a;
2009b; 2010).
Around the same time, Picardo, Burton, Naponick, and Katrina Reproductive Assessment
Team (2010) screened 66 women aged 18-49 for physical and sexual abuse seven to nine
months after Hurricane Katrina using a 20 question survey. All respondents resided in
Louisiana Federal Emergency Management Agency housing. While 16 of the 20 questions
were about demographic or reproductive information, if the participating respondent was
alone in the home, she was asked four more questions about physical or sexual abuse. If she
reported abuse, further questions were asked about its frequency compared to a year
earlier. The report concluded that:
Physical abuse was not uncommon among displaced women following Hurricane
Katrina. Increasing and new abuse were the most commonly reported experiences.
(Picardo et al., 2010, p. 282)
A questionnaire survey with 123 post-partum women, all of whom had experienced
Hurricane Katrina, found that ‘certain experiences of the hurricane are associated with an
increased likelihood of violent methods of conflict resolution’ (Harville, Taylor, Tesfai, Xiong
& Buerkens, 2011, p. 834). The authors note that the association may be under-estimated as
‘those lost to follow-up were more likely to have had a severe experience of the hurricane’
(p. 842).
A systematic review of the literature in 2013 (Rezaeian, 2013) affirms the scarcity of studies
focusing on exposure to disaster and rates of interpersonal violence and concludes:
The results of these studies reveal that being exposed to natural disasters such as
tsunami, hurricane, earthquake, and flood increased the violence against women
and girls, e.g. rape and sexual abuse, and inflicted traumatic brain injury. (Rezaeian,
2013, p. 1105)
Despite this body of work, claims as to whether domestic violence increases after disaster
continue to be cautious. For example, one study found higher rates of intimate partner
violence among blue-collar workers after Hurricane Floyd in North Carolina in the United
States in 1999, but disputed a link to their flood experience (Frasier et al., 2004). In 2011, a
questionnaire survey with 237 women pre-Hurricane Katrina and 215 afterwards found no
evidence of increased sexual assault amongst female students at the University of New
Orleans (Fagen, Sorensen & Anderson). Another example is a study in Australia after
flooding in 2011 (in the Lockyer Valley and the Somerset Region in Queensland, and the
Ballarat to Kerang region in Victoria) which notes reports by research participants of
‘perceived’ increased violence (Shaw et al., 2012). However, the report states that ‘further
targeted research would be needed to investigate this aspect of the study’ (Shaw et al.,
2012, p. 32). The reluctance to unequivocally state that violence against women increases
after disaster in developed countries is curious.
Explanations for increased violence against women
The UN Inter-Agency Standing Committee (2005) notes that ‘the most immediate and
dangerous type of gender-based violence occurs in acute emergencies’ and theorises that
the increased risk emerges as personal resilience is compromised by the lack of individual
and community protective infrastructure (Inter-Agency Standing Committee, 2005) . Indeed,
vulnerability in disasters is increased by a range of factors. There is psychological strain
resulting from grief and loss for both women and men. A prevailing ‘private domain’ of
domestic violence and sexual violence (Inter-AgencyStanding Committee, 2005) is
compounded by empathy for the abuser and excuses of ‘out of character’ behaviour. This
may result in under-recognition of violence against women and lack of validation by service
Natural disasters do not exist in isolation from the social and cultural constructs that
marginalize women and place them at risk of violence. In fact, there is evidence that
violence against women increases in the wake of colossal disasters and that the
increased risk is associated with gender inequality and the limited representation of
women in disaster responses. (Rees, Pittaway, & Bartolomei, 2005, para. 1)
Phillips, Jenkins and Enarson (2010) theorise that reasons for the apparent increase of
domestic and sexual violence after disasters include threats to the male provider and
protector role; loss of control; increased and possibly forced contact between the couple;
and loss of options as support services for women are reduced. They write that, following
Hurricane Katrina, some women evacuated with their violent partner to ensure the safety of
their children while escaping the disaster (Phillips, Jenkins et al., 2010). Enarson suggests
that relationships are pressured; disruptions to services mean women cannot call for help or
transport is reduced; and women who have violent partners are often isolated (trapped)
together with them and disaster exacerbates this (Enarson, 2012). Disaster also diverts
[P]olice and other service providers are usually busy responding to other calls or
emergencies that are deemed more pressing, so “domestics” become a much lower
priority. It may be possible, then, that the decline in the incidence of domestic
violence reports following Sept. 11th are a combination of women simply not calling
for help because they see their own “personal” problems as unimportant, and the
police not responding as they had prior to Sept 11th. (Renzetti, 2010, p. 52)
In 2006, Enarson writes of silent men, suicidal men, unemployed men, men feeling
‘unmasked and unmanly’, concluding that some will turn to some combination of drugs,
alcohol and aggression, endangering those around them (Enarson, 2006, para. 4). It is
apparent that disasters and their aftermath increase the vulnerability of people some
more than others. A 2009 literature review of the effects of relocation post-disaster on
physical and mental health reports that three of the seven studies that considered gender
found women to be at increased risk of adverse outcomes (Uscher-Pines, 2009). Being
relocated increases the burden due to 'psychological stressors, healthcare disruption, social
network changes and living condition changes' (Uscher-Pines, 2009, p. 17).
Threats to women’s safety extend beyond the direct impact of the disaster to ‘vulnerability
to unchecked male violence and aggression’ (Williams, 1994, p. 34). Where researchers have
noted the link between disaster and increased violence against women (Enarson, 1998;
Enarson & Phillips, 2008; Fothergill, 1998; Jenkins & Phillips, 2008a; Morrow, 1999; Palinkas
et al., 1993), they hypothesise that this increase is due to a number of factors including
heightened stress, alcohol abuse, and lapses in constraints to behaviour offered by legal and
societal expectations (Austin, 2008; Neumayer & Plümper, 2007b). After floods in
Queensland, Dobson writes, ‘It was as if the balancing influences were removed and life
became very raw and stark’ (Dobson, 1994, p. 11). Homelessness and changed living
circumstances would be another factor (Phillips & Morrow, 2008). Enarson and Phillips write
that, ‘From Peru (Oiver-Smith 1986) to Alaska (Palinkas et al. 1993; Larabee 2000), male
“coping strategies” after disasters involve alcohol abuse and interpersonal aggression’
(Enarson & Phillips, 2008, p. 51). Duke Austin (2008) observes that disasters temporarily
remove the societal institutions that regulate masculinity and can lead to violence:
I argue how a form of hyper-masculinity emerges from the stress and loss created by
a natural disaster, which often leads to increased levels of violence and discord in
heterosexual relationships. (Austin, 2008, p. 1)
This accompanies a community attitude that minimises such violence. Australian research
shows a litany of attitudes that blame women and excuse men in violent situations. In a
2006 report on Australian attitudes to violence against women, a large proportion of the
community believed that ‘domestic violence can be excused if it results from temporary
anger or results in genuine regret’ (Taylor & Mouzos, 2006, p. xii). Such violence may even
be seen as legitimate, and excused because this is ‘the way men behave’ (Atkinson, 2002, p.
4). In 2009, only 53 per cent of Australians viewed ‘slapping or pushing a partner to cause
harm or fear’ as ‘very serious’ (VicHealth, 2009, p. 4) and 18 per cent ‘believed that
domestic violence can be excused if it results from a temporary loss of control’. Even more
(22 per cent) believed domestic violence was excusable ‘If a perpetrator truly regrets what
they have done’ (VicHealth, 2009, p. 36).
Disasters offer a very good excuse for men’s violence against women and the deep
disinterest in tracking changes to violence against women in Black Saturday’s aftermath
offers initial substantiation that violence against women after disaster is not seen as
important to disaster planning, response or recovery (Parkinson, Lancaster, & Stewart,
2011). It seems men’s violent behaviour is excused by embedded cultural and economic
factors too, as in every country where violence against women is high, those factors play a
critical role in promoting and condoning violence as a legitimate way to resolve conflict
(AusAID Office of Development Effectiveness, 2008).
Women who have suffered violence from their partner before a disaster may experience
increased violence in the aftermath and other women may experience it as a new event or
pattern following a disaster. In disaster situations, domestic violence may well be buried
even further beneath public consciousness, as attention is focused elsewhere. The women
and children subjected to this abuse ‘suffer doubly when large-scale catastrophes strike -
even as large numbers of volunteers turn out to respond, donors overwhelm local
communities, and people open their hearts to those in need’ (Jenkins & Phillips, 2008a, p.
The way communities respond, and whether disaster planning and recovery is set up to
recognise and address violence against women, too, seem to depend on how well it was
addressed before the disaster (Fothergill, 2008). At worker level, too, how individuals
perceived violence against women before the event predicted their recognition and
response to it in the aftermath (Wilson et al., 1998). Massive disasters like Hurricane Katrina
and Black Saturday resulted in widespread psychological distress and 'maladaptive coping
strategies' thereby creating ‘conditions where violence may emerge as a strategy' (Jenkins &
Phillips, 2008b, p. 65). Enarson suggested that, 'Teasing apart the triggers of gender violence
in disasters (substance abuse, psychological stress, economic strain) would be a major step
towards violence prevention and disaster recovery' (Enarson, 2012, p. 75).
The under-reporting of violence against women in disasters
For most of the world’s history it appears that ‘domestic violence’ has at best been ignored,
and at worst upheld as a man’s right to subjugate the women in his household. Current
legislation introduced only in 2009 in Afghanistan, permits Shia men ‘to deny their wives
food and sustenance if they refuse to obey their husbands’ sexual demands’ (Boone, 2009).
This individual example has its parallels in other cultures and throughout history. For
example, in Victoria prior to 1985, it was not a criminal offence for a man to rape his wife.
It was not until 1985 that an amendment to the Crimes Act 1958 saw the inclusion of sub-
section 62(2) which states that ‘marriage does not constitute, or raise any presumption of,
consent by a person to an act of sexual penetration with another person or to an indecent
assault ...‘ (Crimes Act 1958 - SECT 62). In Australia, contemporary legislation is now
ostensibly free from gendered discrimination as it relates to violence against women. Yet,
the letter of the law is not necessarily what is enacted in the judicial system, and, as stated
in Time for Action, ‘Attitudes and beliefs about gender are learned, and society often
teaches deeply held sexist views(Flood, 1998, cited in the National Council to Reduce
Violence against Women and their Children, 2009). The ‘misogyny speech’ delivered by
Australia’s Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, in 2012 powerfully conveyed the sting and
consequence of sexism in current-day Australia (Gillard, 2012).
Any assessment of the levels of violence against women in the aftermath of disasters must
begin with an understanding that violence from intimate partners and sexual violence is
grossly under-reported at any time. Australian research in 2004 indicates that only 12 per
cent of women report sexual violence to police, 19 per cent report physical violence, and 15
per cent report physical or sexual violence from a partner (Mouzos & Makkai, 2004, p. 102).
Of the few women who do report, even fewer make it to court or to a conviction. In
Australia’s Higher Courts,
the lowest proportion of all principal offences proven guilty are
sexual assault cases (63 per cent), and sexual assault cases have the highest rate of case
withdrawal (22 per cent) (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2010, p. 11; see also Victorian Law
Reform Commission, 2004).
Denise Lievore (2005, p. 5) in her 2005 study of prosecutorial decision-making in sexual
assault cases, also finds a ‘relatively large degree of case attrition’ with 38 per cent of cases
in the sample withdrawn, and only 44 per cent of cases that were prosecuted resulting in a
conviction. This figure includes guilty pleas (Lievore, 2005, p. 5). Similarly, a 2007 estimate
The Higher Courts refers to the grouping of the Intermediate (the District or County Court) and Supreme Court levels.
(Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2010, p. 11) (This is the most recent year available for this information.)
by the Australian Institute of Criminology suggests that less than 20 per cent of the sexual
assaults where women do report to police are investigated and result in charges (Australian
Institute of Criminology, 2007). The low level of sexual assault reporting in Australia may
reflect community attitudes of women bearing the blame for such violence. Indeed, it seems
that ‘[m]ost societies tend to blame the victim in cases of sexual violence’ (Inter-Agency
Standing Committee, 2005, p. 4).
Under-reporting after Hurricane Katrina became evident after a survey by Anastario et al.
(2009). Officially, 46 cases of sexual assault were reported in New Orleans in the immediate
aftermath, and over the following seven month period, sexual assault cases increased by 45
per cent (Austin, 2008). It was calculated that this represented a 95 per cent increase when
the lower population after evacuation and displacement was taken into account (Austin,
2008). However, these reports represented only a fraction of sexual assaults as disaster-
related barriers to reporting exacerbated the typically low reporting rates. A news report at
the time stated that despite evidence of an increase in the number of rapes following
Hurricane Katrina, a decreased rate of sexual assault reporting was expected because of the
'unfathomable chaos of Hurricane Katrina', and because of computer difficulties in the
police department (Cook Lauer, 2005, para. 17). While formal reporting of sexual assault
was low due to these barriers, Anastario et al.’s research in the two years after the
Hurricane showed a sharp increase:
Our pooled (2006 and 2007) post-disaster SV [sexual violence] rate was equivalent to
3.04/100,000 per day since Hurricane Katrina, more than 27 times that of the local
rate in Mississippi estimated before Hurricane Katrina. (Anastario et al., 2009, p. 22)
The under-reporting of physical violence against women, too, is apparent. Theorising that
women suffering violence from an intimate partner may seek care for the physical and
mental results of the violence against them, but are unlikely to draw attention to the
violence itself, Anastario et al. (2009) write that women’s reluctance to report violence
against them is a further factor compounding gender blindness in times of disaster. This is
corroborated by the United Nations Inter-Agency Standing Committee:
One of the characteristics of GBV [gender based violence], and in particular sexual
violence, is under-reporting. Survivors/victims generally do not speak of the incident
for many reasons, including self-blame, fear of reprisals, mistrust of authorities, and
risk/fear of re-victimization. Acts of GBV evoke shaming and blaming, social stigma,
and often rejection by the survivor/victim’s family and community. Stigma and
rejection can be especially severe when the survivor/ victim speaks about or reports
the incident. Any available data, in any setting, about GBV reports from police, legal,
health, or other sources will represent only a very small proportion of the actual
number of incidents of GBV. (Inter-Agency Standing Committee, 2005, p. 4)
Violence and disaster in Australia
Disaster research in Australia which takes a sociological perspective focuses on what
happened to people in a literal sense: the stresses and challenges they faced; the effects in
terms of finances, work, housing; the practical aspects of individual and community
recovery; communications and media; and evaluation of system responses. A study of the
1983 Ash Wednesday bushfires published by Paul Valent the following year investigates the
human reactions using ‘temporal’ and ‘biopsychosocial’ framework (Valent, 1984). While it
speaks of tensions and stressors and mentions that ‘[m]any families, especially those in
which relationships were previously strained, suffered badly, and even split up’ (Valent,
1984, p. 295), it does not report on violence against women. Research into individual and
community recovery from the 2003 Canberra bushfires reports on relationships with family,
friends and community, and health and well-being issues, but the survey did not ask
respondents about domestic violence or other forms of violence against women. While 22.4
per cent of the 482 respondents said the Canberra bushfire had a lasting effect for the
worse on relationships with family, none spoke of domestic violence (Camilleri et al., 2007).
The only reported comment that approximates this is:
One person interviewed told of a major and rather frightening family fight about a
week after the fire, which they saw as the result of the stress of the whole
experience, but also said that after the fight, everyone settled back to being very
close and supportive. (Camilleri et al., 2007, p. 48)
This kind of interpretation was predicted in the United States a decade earlier, when Bolin,
et al. (1998) wrote that gender is largely absent from concepts of the family in disaster
research and how, ‘the only hints of post-disaster discord in families are framed as role
strains, suggesting that such occurrences are out of the ordinary’ (Bolin et al., 1998, pp. 32-
33). This research underscores the assertion that some violence, including domestic
violence, is ‘unrecognized and unrecorded’ in the context of disaster (Phillips, Jenkins et al.,
2010, p. 280).
The Australian Beyond Bushfires: Community Resilience and Recovery survey in 2012 did not
include a question on domestic violence or violence against women or community violence,
however, consideration may be given for its inclusion in future questionnaires (Gibbs, 2014).
Given the findings in this research that assert women are silenced about the violence
against them, questions to capture this information will need to be informed by domestic
violence workers and interpreted in the knowledge that disclosure is lower for women still
in a relationship with men who have used physical and sexual violence than where
separations have occurred (Lievore, 2003). Future surveys must be alert to such barriers as
highlighted in a recent Federal Government report on domestic violence:
Women appear to be particularly reluctant to report current partners. According to
ABS data, of females who experienced physical assault or sexual assault by a male in
the previous 12 months, there was greatest reluctance to report incidents to police
when the perpetrator was a current partner. (Mitchell, 2011, p. 17)
Writing about the ‘lack of curiosity’ about the rapes after Hurricane Katrina, Joni Seager
(2006) reminds readers of the profound discrimination inherent in ‘natural’ disasters,
suggesting instead they are ‘human disasters’ once the event is over. She writes: ‘The
gendered character of this disaster, and the wilful silence about it, is also more artifice than
nature’ (Seager, 2006, p. 3).
In 2013, the Australian Government funded development of a manual and kit to help
women and communities prepare for and survive natural disasters, and its chapter on
‘Relationships’ notes the increased possibility of violence (National Rural Women's
Coalition, 2013, p. 36). Yet, the specific question of whether violence against women
increases in the wake of a disaster in Australia remains controversial and appears not to
have been addressed elsewhere in any published Australian research to date (Parkinson et
al., 2011). As a result, this research was formulated to address the gap in understanding the
sociological aspects of disasters’ impact and aftermath in Australia, particularly focusing on
violence against women. The research question was:
Is there a link between disaster and increased violence against women in the Australian
As outlined in the literature surveyed and analysed above, the impact of disaster while
devastating to all concerned is gendered. In disasters and their aftermath women are
affected differently and in many cases more severely than men. Specifically, women are at
greater risk of mortality in a disaster, and increased violence against women is a
documented characteristic of a post-disaster recovery. Since the 1990s, a growing body of
international research has presented evidence into the gendered impact of catastrophe.
However, to date there is no published research with women on the link between disaster
and domestic violence in Australia.
Arguably, two blind spots overlap on this issue. Violence against women, particularly within
the private domain, has long been a taboo subject, despite work in recent decades to
address this issue. It seems that this lack of recognition may be taken to a new level in a
post-disaster context where stress levels are high, and where perpetrators may have been
‘heroes’ in the fires, and where, in the aftermath of disaster, men are often unemployed
and sometimes suicidal. The resources of support services are over-burdened with primary
and fire-related needs in the aftermath of a disaster and this serves to exacerbate a
willingness to overlook violence against women. Theories of male privilege and women’s
sacrifice illuminate why increased violence against women after Black Saturday was
tolerated. As Australian communities have endured one devastating natural disaster after
another since February 2009, the need for Australian feminist research in this area is
The following chapter is the women’s exposition of what happened to them on, and as a
result of, Black Saturday. It begins with their apprehension as the much-heralded dangerous
day became increasingly ominous. They spoke of deciding to stay and defend, or escape the
fires, and included their observations of partners’ actions and reactions. Their own feelings,
and perceptions of their partners’ permeate the narratives. The second part of the chapter
illustrates the stressors of the aftermath, stretching over weeks and months and years. This
description provides essential context for the later chapters’ focus on violence after the
3: Methodology
When women were asked why they wanted to participate in this research, overwhelmingly
they stated they wanted to help others by sharing their experiences. They did not want the
knowledge borne through suffering to be lost. Clearly, they shared the aims of this research,
which were:
To document women’s experiences in the aftermath of the Black Saturday fires, and
To contribute to a new knowledge-base and inform post-disaster recovery.
Outcomes sought included documented narratives from women in fire-affected
communities about their experiences of bushfire and the recovery period, with a focus on
domestic violence and the effect of disaster and the recovery period on women and their
communities. The research question was:
Is there a link between disaster and increased violence against women in the Australian
Subsidiary questions were:
What were women’s experiences of violence against them following the Black
Saturday bushfires?
What was the nature of this violence?
To what extent did women minimise or ignore the violence against them in the
period of post-disaster?
Why did they do this?
How did women experience agency and societal responses?
What actions are needed to recognise and address violence against women in the
period of post-disaster?
This research sits within a wider research project conducted from 2009 to 2013 which
comprised three overlapping studies. Interviews were conducted through Women’s Health
Goulburn North East, with ethics approval gained from the North East Health Human
Research Ethics Committee. The first study comprised interviews with 47 people involved in
a professional or volunteer capacity in the post-disaster recovery and reconstruction period.
This was followed by the interviews with 30 women (the subject of this thesis), and the third
study comprised interviews with 32 men on their experiences after Black Saturday.
The workers’ study and the women’s study were part of the same ethics application. I was
primary researcher on this application and in this capacity undertook the ethics approval
procedure for both North East Health and Monash University Human Research Ethics
Committees (Approval number CF10/0448 2010000209). More information is provided in
the Methodology section. As principal researcher in the women’s study – the focus of this
thesis I developed the methodology, participated in each interview with a co-interviewer
(Claire Zara) who is noted on the ethics application as associate researcher, and I completed
all data analysis, conclusion drawing, and thesis writing. Data collection through interviews
was conducted jointly with a co-interviewer on the recommendation of the North East
Health Human Research Ethics Committee, however, all other work associated with the
women’s study was completed by the candidate.
The men’s study – a separate research project to this received ethics approval on 23rd
February 2013 from Monash University Human Research Ethics Committee (Approval
number CF 12/4034-2012001946) in an application in which Emeritus Professor Frank
Archer is noted as chief investigator and I am noted as co-investigator. Claire Zara is noted
as student researcher.
Figure 3 provides more detail including publications to date from each study.
Figure 3: Research context for this thesis and report/ publications relevant to each.
This data collection was conducted over two years from late 2009 to 2011 and
geographically confined to the Local Government Areas (LGAs) of Mitchell and Murrindindi
in Victoria’s North-East region. These LGAs were selected for study as they were the worst
affected on Black Saturday with 159 of the 173 deaths in the shires of Mitchell and
Murrindindi (Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission, 2010b). Established researcher
47 participants
Unpublished report:
Parkinson, D., & Zara, C. (2012). The way he tells it -
Vol. 4, A gut feeling: The workers' accounts.
Wangaratta: Women's Health Goulburn North East.
Unpublished reports:
Parkinson, D. (2012). The way he tells it - Vol. 1,
Relationships after Black Saturday. Wangaratta:
Women's Health Goulburn North East.
Parkinson, D. (2012). The Way He Tells It - Vol. 2
Women and Disasters Literature Review.
Wangaratta: Women's Health Goulburn North East.
Parkinson, D. (2012). The way he tells it - Vol. 3, The
landscape of my soul: Women's accounts.
Wangaratta: Women's Health Goulburn North East.
Parkinson, D., & Zara, C. (Eds.) (2011). Beating the
flames. Wangaratta: Women's Health Goulburn
North East.
Published peer reviewed journal articles:
Parkinson, D., & Zara, C. (2013). The hidden disaster:
Violence in the aftermath of natural disaster. The
Australian Journal of Emergency Management,
Parkinson, D., Lancaster, C., & Stewart, A. (2011). A
numbers game: Women and disaster. Health
Promotion Journal of Australia, 22(3).
Podcast and conferences:
(Hazeleger, Parkinson, & Zara, 2013; Parkinson,
2013; Parkinson & Zara, 2012a, 2012b, 2012c,
The men's
32 participants
Unpublished report:
Zara, C., & Parkinson, D. (2013). Men on Black
Saturday: Risks and opportunities for change.
Wangaratta: Women's Health Goulburn North East.
(Zara & Parkinson, 2013a)
networks contributed to the decision to select this region for the study. Maps 1 and 2,
below, show Mitchell shire on the left and Murrindindi shire on the right.
Map 1: Mitchell and Murrindindi shires in Victoria (Adapted from
Map 2: Shires of Mitchell and Murrindindi (State Government of Victoria.
Maps 3 and 4 show the location of badly affected Victorian towns within this region.
Map 3: Area showing towns (
Map 4: Locations of deaths on Black Saturday
The research approach
This research methodology, like feminism itself, seeks to ‘explain patterns of injustice in
organizations, behaviour, and normative values that systematically manifest themselves in
gender-differentiated ways’ (Ackerly & True, 2010, p. 464). It is feminist and qualitative in
approach, based primarily on in-depth individual interviews which offer an effective
technique to encourage women to speak of their experiences (Chatzifotiou, 2000). Such an
approach is particularly apt for this research. In the very act of agreeing to an interview
despite the enormous barriers, women claimed their power.
The first act of power people can take in managing their own lives is ‘speaking the
world’, naming their experiences in their own words under conditions where their
stories are listened to and respected by others. (Freire & Macedo, 1987, cited in
Labonte, Feather, & Hills, 1999, p. 40)
In offering advice to new researchers, Spradley alerts them to the concept of ‘naive realism’,
defined as ‘the almost universal belief that all people define the real world of objects,
events, and living creatures in pretty much the same way’ (Spradley, 1980, p. 4). Of course,
as Spradley suggests, this is not the case. Qualitative research theorists refute the positivist
premise of objectivity, and rather than prescribe particular methods, instead challenge
researchers to identify their own subjectivity. In qualitative research, the researcher’s values
are influential, and therefore ‘plenty of care and self-awareness’ is required (Miles &
Huberman, 1994, p. 10) Cultural values both explicit and tacit must be identified by each
researcher and attempts made to put them aside in order to venture, in ‘almost complete
ignorance’ into the field to be studied (Spradley, 1980, p. 4). Margarete Sandelowski (2010)
helps researchers understand how to do this and explains that:
There is a vast difference between being open-minded yet mindful of the
preconceptions (including theoretical leanings) one has entering a field of study and
being empty-headed, an impossibility for any human being with a fully functioning
brain. (Sandelowski, 2010, p. 80)
This reiterates Glaser and Strauss’s acknowledgement that a Grounded Theory researcher is
not a ‘tabula rasa’ and that perspective is needed to help identify relevant data and
subsequent categories (1967). Once in the field, and when immersed in data analysis,
ethnographic and other qualitative researchers must constantly ask, check, and re-check the
meaning participants attach to actions, events and communication. The theory of Symbolic
Interactionism, which has been drawn on in qualitative research to assist in this task, has
substantial roots in the work of John Dewey and Margaret Mead in the 1930s (Berg, 1989).
[T]he general purpose of qualitative research derives from a symbolic interactionist
perspective which is central to the conception of qualitative methodology ... The
theme that unites the diverse elements of symbolic interaction is the focus on
subjective understandings, as well as perceptions of and about people, symbols, and
objects. (Berg, 1989, pp. 6-7)
Herbert Blumer names and expands this theory in his foundational 1969 work, ‘Symbolic
Interactionism: Perspective and Method’ (Berg, 1989; Blumer, 1969; Spradley, 1980). Here,
Blumer describes its three premises as: firstly, that human interactions are based on
ascribing meanings to other’s actions to inform reactions; secondly, that the meanings
themselves are a product of social interaction; and thirdly, meanings are moderated by the
individual (Spradley, 1980). Grounded theory offers rules for data collection and analysis
that minimise ethnocentrism in the attribution of meaning (Spradley, 1980). Although
Glaser and Strauss point to experience, deduction and induction all playing a role in
Grounded Theory (1967), its great strength is the technique it offers for inductive reasoning.
As Berg notes, ‘in order to present the perceptions of others ... in the most forthright
manner, a greater reliance upon induction is necessary’ (1989, p. 112).
Grounded Theory provided the conceptual basis for this research. First elaborated in 1967
by Glaser and Strauss, it is a combination of theoretical sampling and thematic analysis.
Theoretical sampling is where participants are selected to be part of the sample on the basis
of the need to fill out particular concepts or theoretical points. Thematic analysis is the
identification of themes through a careful reading and rereading of the data. The
methodology is inductive, building up concepts and theories from the data.
As I have conducted qualitative research into domestic violence in the past, some may argue
that I would be more likely to find an increase in domestic violence after Black Saturday
than other researchers. However, checks and balances were built in to the research
methodology, whereby women were asked broadly about their experiences of Black
Saturday and its aftermath, and violence was just one component. This allowed women to
focus on events, experiences and perceptions that were important to them. The semi-
structured nature of the interviews resulted in some data being unavailable as a standard
set of responses was not required. (This is reflected by ‘not stated’ in some cells in Tables 2
and 3.) In recording and transcribing the interviews, the women’s narratives are accurate,
and emphasis has been placed in this thesis on providing enough of their quotations for the
reader to be satisfied that the women spoke of increased violence and the context in which
it was reported. Essentially, the data speaks for itself through qualitative research that is
presented with the force of ‘thick description’ (Geertz, 1973, cited in Berg, 1989, p. 52). The
actual words of women, vetted by them after some weeks ‘cooling off’, cannot be denied,
and the meanings ascribed to their words by way of categorisation and ordering to
present a coherent narrative has also been verified by the women (Parkinson, 2012b). These
methods mitigate against researcher bias.
The assumption is that to do feminist research is to use qualitative methods (Hughes &
Cohen, 2010), and indeed, this is the approach taken in this research. Yet, choosing a
methodology to guide social research is fraught, as there are no clear boundaries.
Analytic distinctions are made to distinguish entities that in real life resist efforts to
distinguish them ... Are such studies to be named ethnography, grounded theory, or
hermeneutics? ... In actual practice any one or more of these names, or even no
name at all, might be acceptable. (Sandelowski, 2010, p. 81)
Terms like ethnography, critical theory, transcendental realism, social phenomenology and
interpretivism cannot be defined as referring to entirely distinctive practices. The techniques
are often shared and the nomenclature overlaps. Interviews, focus groups, case studies,
participant-observation, literature reviews, content analysis can be a part of a number of
methodologies (Berg, 1989; Miles & Huberman, 1994). In practice, Miles and Huberman
observe, ‘it seems hard to find researchers encamped in one fixed place along a stereotyped
continuum between “relativism” and “postpositivism”’ (1994, p. 4).
Taking just one position on the continuum, and one theorist, illustrates the complexities of
qualitative methodology. In 2010, Sandelowski revisited her controversial and much cited
‘Whatever happened to qualitative description’ article a decade earlier (2000) where she
Researchers conducting qualitative descriptive studies stay closer to their data and
to the surface of words and events than researchers conducting grounded theory,
phenomenologic, ethnographic, or narrative studies ... Qualitative description is
especially amenable to obtaining straight and largely unadorned ... answers to
questions of special relevance to practitioners and policy makers. (Sandelowski,
2000, pp. 336-337)
In the 2010 article, ‘What’s in a name’, she explores the nomenclature of qualitative
research methodologies. She lists the ways her original thesis was misunderstood by
qualitative researchers and reviewers, importantly stating that she had never really
developed a new method of qualitative description at all:
[I]t is appropriate for researchers to refer to the method they used as, for example,
‘qualitative description as Sandelowski (2000) described it,’ it is inappropriate to
refer to qualitative description as ‘Sandelowski’s method.’ (Sandelowski, 2010, p. 78)
Even within a particular methodology, polemics erupt about right and wrong ways of
implementing it (Sandelowski, 2010). Tensions within Grounded Theory, too, were identified
between the ‘theoretical sensitivity’ required of researchers to sort relevant from irrelevant
data and the requirement to enter the field without a hypothesis and allow findings to
emerge (Kelle, 2005). Explaining this apparent contradiction resulted in a divergence in
opinion between Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss as each emphasises a different way to
operationalise the theory. In a 1978 monograph, Glaser stresses the concept of ‘coding
families’ and the ‘emergence’ of data (Kelle, 2005). Strauss on the other hand, in his 1987
book, Qualitative Analysis for Social Scientists stresses the researcher’s role in identifying
relevant data (theoretical sensitivity) and the use of axial coding and a coding paradigm
(Kelle, 2005). This disagreement reached a pinnacle after Strauss co-wrote (with Juliet
Corbin) Basics of Qualitative Research: Grounded Theory Procedures and Techniques in 1990
(Strauss & Corbin, 1990). As Udo Kelle notes:
In the year 1992 Glaser turned against Strauss’ and Corbin’s version of Grounded
Theory in a monograph titled ’Emergence vs. Forcing: Basics of Grounded Theory
Analysis’, published in his private publishing venture and written in an exceptionally
polemic style. In this book he accuses Strauss and Corbin for having betrayed the
common cause of Grounded theory. The charge ... is that by using concepts such as
‘axial coding’ and ‘coding paradigms’ researchers would ‘force’ categories on the
data instead of allowing the categories to ‘emerge’. (Kelle, 2005, 3. para 1)
The approach used in this thesis in employing Grounded Theory has been to err on the side
of Glaser’s interpretation while nevertheless formulating a research question and taking up
Strauss’s invitation to conduct a literature review before entering the field. In her 2011
article, Sandelowski suggests that such a mix and match approach across qualitative
research methods may, in fact, produce a more balanced result, and she warns against
‘religious’ dedication to one method or theory of inquiry.
Research practice is arguably more usefully depicted not in terms of staying inside
the lines but rather as constant movement between the ‘special sensitivities’
(Gubrium & Holstein, 1997, p. 101) afforded by various approaches to inquiry and by
theories from across the sciences and humanities. Taking a view of inquiry as
movement rather than as stationary might make it less likely that researchers will
succumb to the excesses of preoccupation with methods and to the extremes to
which methods themselves can too easily be taken. Alvesson and Skoldberg (2009)
described these extremes ironically as the ‘dataism’ (p. 283) of grounded theory,
‘narcissism’ of hermeneutics, and ‘social and linguistic reductionism’ of critical
theory and postmodernism (p. 269). (Sandelowski, 2011, p. 8)
She suggests, instead, that inquiry is differentiated more by the attitude taken towards data
rather than the method used (Sandelowski, 2011), therein reiterating Millen’s take on
feminist research that it is characterised more by the values that inform it rather than the
methods used (1997). Even in 1994, moves were afoot as social researchers were
increasingly seeing the world ‘with more pragmatic, ecumenical eyes’ (Miles & Huberman,
p. 5). Saville Kushner captures the reality of doing qualitative research:
Methodology is, I think, something that is crafted as a form of expression. It is a
personal construct. This does, of course, make naturalistic enquiry a highly uncertain
and risky activity. It says that there are few guides until and unless, that is, you
have discovered enough about yourself to know why you are investigating and what
your personal limits are. Until then, the most common experience of enquiry is of
confusion and uncertainty and methodological texts rarely teach how to cope with
these. (Kushner, 2000, p. 77)
It was essential that the methodology adopted for this research be well thought out in order
to present credible research findings. To do less would be to disrespect the women’s
accounts and the risks taken by the women in participating in this sensitive research. The
insights from the leading qualitative researchers and theorists cited here offered sound
Ethics and recruitment procedures
A Human Ethics Certificate of Approval was provided by Monash Human Research Ethics
Committee (MUHREC) on 5th March, 2010 (Approval number CF10/0448 2010000209).
MUHREC accepted the ethical review already given by North East Health Human Research
Ethics Committee (NEHHREC) in their letter of approval on 14th October 2009. (See Appendix
Women were invited to be interviewed in-depth about their experience and subsequent
reflections. Criteria for inclusion were that women were living in the Shires of Mitchell or
Murrindindi during the Black Saturday bushfires and were aged over 18. (See Appendix 3 for
Recruitment Flyer.)
Recruitment notices were placed in community newspapers, newsletters and electronic
publications at the Kinglake, Flowerdale and Marysville hubs and temporary villages, and at
key community centres in Seymour, Alexandra, Yea and Whittlesea. Facilitators of women’s
groups were asked to display the flyer in their usual meeting places.
The recruitment flyer invited women to contact the researcher to arrange an interview at a
time and place of their choosing. When women made contact to arrange an interview, they
were asked for their email or postal address so the explanatory statement and consent form
could be posted to them before the interview. (See Appendix 2 for explanatory statement
and consent form.) Consent procedures were outlined, including that they were free to
withdraw from the project at any stage. They were then advised they would receive a $100
voucher (funded by Women’s Health Goulburn North East) to cover related expenses such
as travel costs and childcare. Interview venues were chosen by the participants with few
choosing their own home. Venues chosen were mostly community-based and included
private rooms in libraries, council buildings, hospitals and community health centres and
one woman chose her local store which provided a private space.
At the beginning of the interview, the participant was handed another copy of the
explanatory statement and consent form. After the participant read (or had read to her) the
explanatory statement, each was asked if she understood and was happy to go ahead with
the interview. Each woman agreed and was then asked to sign and date the consent form.
Each was reminded that she had the right to stop the interview at any time or to refuse to
answer any particular question, and that she had the right to withdraw from the project,
and later could amend or withdraw the transcript of her interview.
Safeguards in place included women having access within a day or so to professional
counsellors from the regional domestic violence service and from the Bushfire Grief and
Bereavement Team in order to debrief. This offer was available to women at any time after
the interviews. Three (free of cost) counsellors were fully appraised about this research and
advised that they may be contacted by participants. The three counsellors offered to
prioritise the women involved in this research. Participants were given the contact details of
these counsellors along with an information sheet with the contacts of a broad range of
appropriately trained and free or low cost local counsellors was distributed to all
Although all the women were given pseudonyms, absolute anonymity was not possible in
this research due to its location within small communities. The explanatory statement that
accompanied the consent form stated:
The data will be anonymous, nobody will be named and you will not be identified
in any way. Please keep in mind that it is sometimes impossible to make an
absolute guarantee of confidentiality/anonymity.
Rural communities, at any time, present challenges for qualitative researchers who aspire to
ensure anonymity and confidentiality. After disaster, the challenge of confidentiality is
exacerbated because people who survived were immediately thrown together for better
or worse and most shared their stories of survival. As time went on, those left in the
communities were, in a sense, ‘under the microscope’ with research and media attention
and ongoing community meetings and consultations. As a direct consequence of frequent
news of suicides, residents too were more alert to the wellbeing of their neighbours and
The real risk of identification of research participants affirms the courage of the women who
took part of this research and who approved their transcripts as data to unveil this ‘hidden
disaster’ of violence against them after Black Saturday. Those who did take part understood
this risk. Clearly, the difficulty in recruiting women reflects the reality that researching small
communities in a post-disaster context requires careful consent both before the
interviews and when transcripts are analysed as women once more have the opportunity to
review their participation.
Data recording and analysis
Two interviewers (including the candidate) attended the interviews, as required by the
initial ethics approval conditions, to allow for researcher debrief and to allow for care of the
women. The interviews were semi-structured so that women were free to speak on the
aspects of their experience of Black Saturday and its aftermath that were most significant to
them. (See Interview Schedules in Appendix 4). As a result of the semi-structured and
participant-led nature of the interviews, the tables that summarise key aspects of the
women’s experience do not always account for all 30 women. In these cases, ‘Not stated’ is
noted in the Table. Interviews were digitally recorded and transcribed in full. All transcripts
were returned for women to approve except for two women, who were concerned that
their husbands may find out about their involvement in this research, and asked not to be
contacted for further approval.
The validity of coding and interpretation was enhanced by the process whereby participants
firstly received a copy of their own transcript and were invited to correct any mistakes or
remove information they wanted excluded. Some women withdrew key sections of their
interview in order to protect their partner or ex-partner and often, themselves. These were
usually the more graphic and damning accounts of their partner’s abusive behaviour. Others
chose to remove quotations, fearing reaction from others. This affirmed the sensitivities still
at work in these communities.
The sample
A total of 30 interviews with women were conducted. Women were aged from early 20s to
60s. In February 2009, 16 of the 30 women were living in or near Kinglake or Kinglake West.
The other 14 came from Marysville and six other small towns in the Murrindindi and
Mitchell shires. Their length of residence in the fire-affected region ranged from six to 51
years, with a median of 20 years and average of 22 years. Two of the women had separated
from their partners before the fires and the other 28 were married or in defacto
relationships at the time of the fires. The women held managerial, administrative,
professional and service occupations in the health, community, agriculture, retail, education
and transport sectors and some worked in a voluntary capacity. (See Table 1 below.)
Table 1: Summary of the research sample
From early 20s to 60s
16 from Kinglake and Kinglake West; 14 from Marysville and six other small
towns in the Mitchell and Murrindindi shires.
Years of residence
Six to 51 years. Median 20 years, Average 22 years.
Marital status
28 married or in defacto relationships and 2 separated as of 7.2.2009
Managerial, administrative, professional and service occupations in the
health, community, agriculture, retail, education and transport sectors, and
voluntary work.
Nvivo Versions 9 and 10 of the Qualitative Software Analysis Package were used to assist in
coding the data. The coding unit was the sentence, and the purpose was to ascribe meaning.
The result was a series of inter-related categories and sub-categories through which the
meanings and the argument of this thesis emerged.
There is little ethnic diversity within the two shires 83 per cent of women in the Mitchell
shire and 82 per cent of Murrindindi shire women were Australian born, with 89 per cent
and 92 per cent respectively speaking English only in the home. Those born in other
countries were mainly from the UK, New Zealand, Germany, the Netherlands and Italy
(Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2011a). The sample reflected this.
Twelve women actively fought the fire and 13 escaped, with all the danger that entailed.
Two women spoke of doing both. (Three women did not choose to speak about this aspect
of their experience.) Twelve women lost their homes. For those who still had homes, many
were damaged and unliveable for some period. Only six of the 30 women felt they would
survive the Black Saturday bushfires. Thirteen women were alone for at least part of this
experience, seven of them with dependent children. Another woman had small children and
left early.
In this research, 17 women spoke about violence 15 in their own relationship, one spoke
about the violence in her close sister’s relationship and one regarding her daughter’s
relationships. Nine of 17 relationships affected by violence in this study had no violence
before the fires, and seven of these were stable, non-violent relationships. (See Appendix 5).
These women spoke of settled and happy relationships that were disrupted by the fires.
For seven women, the violence had escalated sharply or had been an isolated incident many
years earlier. For one woman, the violence had been severe and she had left the
relationship before the fires. Her husband returned after the fires and resumed his level of
violence towards her. Of the 17 women who experienced violence since the fires, 16 women
stated they were afraid of their partner. Nine of the 17 women had separated from their
partners since the Black Saturday bushfires at the time of interview, and two had separated
(Table 2 in this thesis includes further details about the 30 women in the sample. Names,
places of residence and age are removed to maintain confidentiality. Appendix 5 provides
further information regarding the 17 relationships where domestic violence was present.)
Difficulty in recruiting women
A notable feature of this research was the difficulty in recruiting women to participate. One
obvious explanation for the slow recruitment of women was the diminished population in
fire-affected regions as many people moved away, either temporarily or permanently.
Several health professionals suggested that the timing of this research was perhaps too
soon. Indeed, the question of when to conduct this research had been a critical
consideration. As outlined earlier in Figure 3, the first stage of the research, conducted
through Women’s Health Goulburn North East (WHGNE), was to consult workers and
ascertain from them the best time to interview women. The great majority of the
consultations with workers were held between October 2009 and January 2010. Their
advice was consistent to wait until after the first anniversary and until the fire season was
over. Consequently, the first interviews with women were in May 2010, some 15 months
after Black Saturday, through until March 2011, with one final interview in October 2011.
It is doubtful that the timing was too soon as data from two separate worker interviews
through the WHGNE research implied that much would have been lost by waiting longer.
Interviews in late 2009 with two key workers provided rich data about the increase in
domestic violence. Yet, when these same workers were re-interviewed a year later, things
had improved generally for the fire-affected areas, the problems their clients were
presenting with were less directly attributed to the disaster, and there was a sense that it
had all blown over and perhaps it was not really that bad before. This was the perception of
some workers and not a universal experience the passage of time has not resolved the
turbulence created by Black Saturday for many in the fire-affected communities.
A further complicating factor for this research was that 17 women were interviewed while
they were still living with their partners and persisting with efforts to make the relationship
work. In relationships where domestic violence was present, eight of the women were still
in the relationship at the time of the interviews. For women who remained with their
partners, future attempts to interview them would doubtless yield less information. Where
couples stayed together, data gathered some years into the future would lose the
immediacy of the experience captured in this research. In accepting that the timing was
optimum, the more complex explanation for the difficulty in recruiting women emerges as a
key theme in this thesis that women were prevented from speaking about the violence
against them. The context of disaster, in this case the aftermath of Black Saturday, magnifies
the taboo and shame that still characterises domestic violence. The women’s narratives
revealed the pressure they felt to put their own needs last in the chaos after Black Saturday,
so it is perhaps extraordinary that any women took the risk of participating. As Spradley
notes, research can empower or it can harm:
No matter how unobtrusive, ethnographic research ... reveals information that can
be used to affirm their rights, interests, and sensitivities or to violate them.
(Spradley, 1980, p. 22)
Yet, the women experiencing domestic violence took this chance aware that complete
anonymity was not possible, and aware of potential risks. The trade-off was their belief and
hope that their suffering could inform better services and that other women would not have
to go through what they had. Perhaps seeing the possibility of change after reading the
draft of this report, one research participant said, ‘When I walked away from the interview, I
thought, “Why did I do that?”. ‘Now’, she said,’ I know why I did it’.
4: Surviving Black Saturday
In a reflective piece published after a suburban house fire destroyed her home in the United
States, Karen Lollar (2010) describes the struggle she and her husband faced in coming to
terms with its loss. Beyond practical and financial concerns, she wrote about fear and
dependence and a new sense of ineptitude. She wrote of others’ expectations that she
would have ‘gotten over it’ and of pretending to be coping but feeling fragmented. While
holding a senior academic position and being in a position in which her competence ought
not to have been in question, Lollar nonetheless writes of the erosion of her sense of her
own competence, ‘I feel fear ... an irrational, overwhelming fear that I cannot manage on my
own. I am suddenly dependent and it feels odd’ (Lollar, 2010, p. 267). Imagine then, the
assault on individuals and communities that was wrought by Black Saturday in 2009 and by
Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Lives changed forever with trauma, near-death experiences,
homelessness, unemployment, financial distress and associated stresses of disruption to
infrastructure: transport, roads, schools, childcare, public institutions (Borrell, 2011; Jenkins
& Phillips, 2008a; Phillips & Morrow, 2008; Sety, 2012). Even the landscape changed, leaving
people to face 'sudden absence of both physical place and place-in-the-world' (Borrell, p.
19; Proudley, 2013). Increased contact between couples, sometimes in accommodation
shared with others, increases tension. Role divisions change and loss of control threatens
the male provider and protector role (Phillips, Jenkins et al., 2010).
Each woman who informed this research located the men’s increased violence within a rich
description of her experiences of Black Saturday and its aftermath. It is essential to
understand the layers of challenge and complication that face survivors of disasters. It is this
context that presents a fertile environment for violence. This chapter relies on the women’s
own words to portray their experiences and observations, along with the connection of
violence to the bushfires as ascribed by them.
Disaster researchers point to the importance of hearing from women if this information is
then used to inform and improve disaster planning, response and recovery (Fothergill, 2008;
Jenkins & Phillips, 2008a):
Listening to the voices of victims in a catastrophic, postdisaster context provides new
insights into how to make all women safer during a disaster. (Jenkins & Phillips,
2008a, p. 62)
In speaking of their lived experience of Black Saturday and its aftermath, the women allow
this overlooked aspect of disaster in Australia to be revealed.
Prepare, Stay and Defend or Leave Early policy
Australia has had a bushfire preparation policy of ‘Prepare, Stay and Defend or Leave Early’
commonly known as ‘stay or go’ – for decades (Haynes et al., 2008). It was well researched
and based on evidence. Black Saturday changed the Australian understanding of bushfires.
Its rage was impenetrable. Even those who had a firm fire plan and were exceptionally well
prepared to stay and defend, and with decades of experience of living in fire prone areas,
reflected on misplaced confidence, which was never meant for a fire with the ferocity of the
Black Saturday bushfire.
I was quite confident, almost cocky. We were prepared, but I never thought ...
One participant experienced Ash Wednesday as a child, and was urged to leave early by her
mother. Others wanted their children out of danger early. For those who did not evacuate
early, decisions to stay or go on Black Saturday were made in the context of little or no
formal information. They were made by intuition, or through fear:
I started to feel panicky ... so I ran up and got my stuff in the car and tried to get the
dog, and then I just left. There was nothing to say what was happening but there was
something that was just wrong. (Bess)
For those who understood the fire fighting system, deceptively ordinary words expressed
powerfully the extent of the impending disaster:
When he’d said to me that Edward [a CFA volunteer] had to leave the [fire
observation] tower, that’s when I knew, ‘Shit, we’ve got to go’. (Jess)
For many who left, the impetus often came when the power went off, and the phones with
it. And for some, the incentive was more direct they could see flames.
All of a sudden that wind change had happened and black smoke just came rolling
down our hill … and at that point it was full on ‘go’. (Carmen)
A common reason to stay was fear of inadvertently driving into the fire.
‘We’ll stay and defend the house’. That had always been our plan [but] I had this flee
instinct, and said, ‘Maybe I’ll take the kids and we’ll go’, and we both looked at each
other and thought, ‘No, it’s too late’. (Marcie)
I said, ‘I’m just going to get the kids and get out of here’. He said, ‘Where are you
going to go?’ Good point. We didn’t know which way to go. ... We heard there were
fires [in all directions] so really there was nowhere left to drive. (Becky)
The women lamented the absence of official warnings about the approaching bushfires.
Most turned to the radio or the internet, in particular, Australian Broadcasting Corporation
(ABC) radio and the Country Fire Authority (CFA) website, only to find no current or accurate
information (Muller, Gawenda, & Bitto, 2009). Even when the information was correct, it
was posted or broadcast too late to be of use. Power outages forced reliance on batteries or
car radios and iPods:
We had been listening to the internet and radio and, truth is, everything we heard
was the wrong information. (Elena)
The media didn’t know what was going on. We were getting calls from our friends
saying Marysville was gone. We knew before the ABC even said it was under threat.
The first idea that we got that we might be under threat was my son’s then girlfriend
… rang screaming over the phone, ‘Get out, get out, it’s coming, it’s coming, we’ve
got to get out’. (Caitlyn)
It seemed that even police, fire-fighters and other emergency service workers were not
informed, and were not in place to assist people trying to escape the fire.
There were other tourists standing in the middle of the road when I was leaving,
looking at the smoke coming, just standing there, and there were no cars driving
around, no police, no SES [State Emergency Service], there was no one. It was dead,
it was like a ghost town. (Hailey)
At times, warnings did get through, via Department of Sustainability and Environment (now
Department of Environment and Primary Industries) or fire brigade workers phoning or
calling into properties. Some were able to access expert information through social
connections. One woman’s neighbour was a fire ranger who showed them a map and
suggested they had about two hours before the fires hit and should go. Another had a sister
in the Country Fire Authority command centre. Sometimes, friends and neighbours living far
away heard before the locals of the approach of the fire and its enormity. One had access to
a scanner and phoned to warn her daughter. Another’s neighbour had a ‘mate from the CFA
who radioed through the CB’.
Mobile phones provided an essential, although unreliable, communication method when
landlines were not available or the power was down. Many women sent and received texts
and calls warning of threats, passing on advice, and checking on each others’ safety. The
capricious nature of mobile phone connections in mountainous areas was frustrating as the
signal came in and out. Battery levels depleted and unreliable electricity supply meant it was
difficult to charge them. For some, the incoming texts and missed calls were another source
of stress.
The mobile networks were jamming so we were not getting much reception. Every
now and again when we did, the frantic messages and phone calls were crazy.
I could get range on the mobile but then there was no power and I had 246 missed
calls and messages from people. (Bess)
Ultimately, decisions were made hastily, taking any option, as roads were found to be
blocked or in the fire path. Police, too, were not in possession of accurate fire information
and, following the only advice they had, unwittingly turned people back towards the danger
(Muller et al., 2009).
The kids saw the fire coming down the hill in Yarra Glen, and with [the only] direction
from the police [to] ‘Turn around and head back’ ... I stopped at the intersection
heading back to Kinglake and a few people pulled over as well and said, ‘Where do
we go, what do we do?’ So I rang some friends in Healesville and they said, ‘You
can’t get through, the road’s blocked’. I couldn’t get through to my husband and so I
went back towards Kinglake and didn’t make it into Kinglake. I’m sure you’ve heard
the story about people just not knowing where the fire front was. They thought it
was coming up the hill, but it was already through the National Park and going into
Kinglake, so we were driving into it. (Megan)
The women described complete confusion and uncertainty. There was nowhere to turn for
reliable information and the reality of the fire threat was immediate and inescapable:
It went pitch black, everywhere you looked there were flames, and I said, ‘This is
what hell would be like’. (Jill)
It just went dark, really dark and the noise, it sounded like a jumbo was landing on
you. (Caitlyn)
It was chaotic. I saw a guy run a cop over because he was trying to get through and
they wouldn’t let him through ... It was just madness. (Virginia)
Natasha spoke of the terror in the blackness and in seeing what was revealed after:
If you’ve ever been to a war zone you’d understand what it was like. Not just the
mental and chaotic energy of everybody, but you’re driving along and there’s
powerlines down everywhere, trees everywhere, people, so many cars just banged
into trees ... a car up a ditch most of them still had bodies in them people were
having accidents in places where you’d think, ‘How did they have an accident?’
They’re five feet from a house and six cars all banged into each other all burnt, and
bodies, and you think, ‘There’s a house there’. And then you know why, because you
couldn’t find your house which was two feet away ... and that was the scene all the
way into Kinglake. And then you get into Kinglake and it was crazy town, just crazy ...
The chaos in town of course was like what you’d see in people fleeing wars, not just
sitting quietly in refugee camps, but running away from the war with bombs going
off behind them. It had that kind of feeling about it. (Natasha)
One woman spoke of carrying her camera tucked into her bra strap so she could take
photographs every few minutes. She felt the need to document her extraordinary
experience because she didn’t think anyone would believe her. She was not alone. Many
spoke of disbelief at the enormity of the fire and tragically bizarre sights flames like
skyscrapers, familiar neighbourhoods destroyed in minutes, ‘bonfires’ everywhere,
neighbours’ houses exploding, blueberry orchards alight, animals on fire, birds dropping
from the sky. And tragic sounds:
It was like an atomic bomb had gone off here. The clouds were like orange
mushroom formations and it was getting lower by the minute. (Ruby)
You didn’t know what was going on with your neighbours ... you could hear them
yelling, you knew while they were yelling they were alive, but this massive old gum
tree not far from the bloody house exploded, and I’m thinking how the hell are they
going to bloody save themselves in there? (Jill)
We had known for hours that we had fire on three sides. At one point we heard the
... tanker crew screaming that they were on fire. We thought they had died, as we
didn’t hear anything more. (Amanda)
Women who left in convoys spoke of enduring regret at not being able to stop for people
walking at the side of the road choking from smoke and assailed by falling embers. The
bumper to bumper traffic had to forge on as one with the firestorm close behind. If one car
stopped, it would endanger all behind. Such logic, however, barely dented the anguish of
driving past adults and children, unable to help.
You’ve got to flee. And we see people their car has broken down on the side of
the road and you just feel, ’Oh, should we stop? No-one is stopping and we have to
keep going in the traffic and what’s going to happen to them?’ You could see from
the side there was fire and smoke and flame and it was dark. (Carmen)
The drive out was fraught with times of zero visibility smoke so thick that women spoke
of driving by memory or terrifying visibility, with enormous fireballs catching up in the rear
vision mirror. Blocked roads forced some of the women to take roads they knew to be
dangerous at the best of times winding, flanked by sheer drops or solid bush. And Black
Saturday was the worst of times. Powerlines were down, trees on fire, cars forced to drive
over burning logs, sometimes overheating and sometimes, too, with little petrol in the tank.
I’m in a Commodore and it was overheating because I was driving over burning logs
and burning both sides of the road and the alarm was going off saying, ‘Engine hot,
engine hot’. ‘Oh, shit, I hope it doesn’t burst into flames.’ (Caitlyn)
Ruby captured her life-threatening escape as she drove with two of her small children in the
back seat and leading her female friend from overseas driving a second car with Ruby’s third
It was terrible. There were horses stuck on fences, there were animals over the road,
there were people in the cars, there were houses upon houses upon houses that we
knew, friends. We recognised cars from friends who had crashed and didn’t know
whether they were alive or dead ... I couldn’t even get out onto the road, there were
so many cars that were fleeing. This woman just put her head out the window and
said, ‘Get out of here!’ We looked over and the fire was there. All of a sudden I had
four lives that I was responsible for, and my own. I shook uncontrollably ... I drove
with the masses 140 kilometres per hour ... It was windy. We had our high-beam
on, hazard lights. We had the air conditioner on because we couldn’t breathe the air,
it was just too thick with smoke. Everyone was running for their own life. You didn’t
get time to stop and think. We got to Yea. It was like entering the twilight zone.
People had already set up on the nature strips. There were horses, cows, dogs,
sheep, goats. Cars were a kilometre down the road queued up for fuel. The Red
Cross was set up how they knew I’ve got no idea it was just like walking into
the twilight zone ... They were talking about building containment lines around Yea.
It was terrifying. Once the full front of the fire hit here in Kinglake and St Andrews
and Hazeldene and that area, the sky turned black. We were all in the clubrooms and
the blackness was upon us very quickly. We couldn’t breathe ... it was too hot and it
was too smoky. (Ruby)
When women made it to relief camps, sometimes with children, sometimes with partners
and sometimes alone, they found another version of chaos. Relief workers were coping with
people needing food, water, bedding and shelter, as well as medical supplies and access to
toilets. The Red Cross centre was initially established to feed the fire-fighters and suddenly
had a more urgent and unanticipated influx. The CFA, too, found their task had expanded, as
CFA sheds necessarily and informally took on the role of refuge centres. The scenes were of
unreality and distress. People were in shock, often separated from family, seeking safety,
and news of loved ones.
Those who stayed
For the women who stayed, through their own choice or not, their survival seemed
miraculous. Three vignettes encapsulate the desperation of the hours spent trying to stay
alive, and trying to save others. In each, the germs of future relationship problems are
evident in expectations unmet, demands issued, perceptions of uncaring neglect, even
abandonment, all preceded by hours of increasingly ominous circumstances. Some women
described personal inadequacy in a time of life and death both felt and alleged by their
partner. Even when couples seem to have worked well together, outcomes of homes
destroyed re-wrote the narrative, suffering children a constant reminder of what may have
been avoided.
Vignette 1: Recriminations
I drove over a hundred Ks an hour, and kept looking in my rear view mirror. The
black ball was behind me the whole blackness was behind me. I was going so fast
and it was catching up to me. Two seconds earlier it was a kilometre back and then it
was not far behind my car with a sense of it chasing me ... I wasn’t scared ... but it
was bewildering, like a crazy dream you can’t make sense of ... Many others said
how loud it was and my husband lost half his hearing from fighting it up close, but I
didn’t hear it, I did not feel it, I did not know embers were going down my back. I
didn’t know for ten days that I had spot burns all the way down my back ... I kept
running inside every five or 10 minutes to the kids and so did my daughter. We’d
take it in turns so they weren’t panicking ... At one stage, when I’d gone inside, my
husband came running in through the back door.
[He said], ‘I can’t, I can’t do it anymore. We have to let it go, I can’t do it.’
I think he was having an asthma attack. I could see there was really nowhere else to
run to safely, so I pushed him back out. For months later, he was angry at me for
doing that but I think without him going back to it things would have turned out far
worse for us all.
I went, ‘No, no, no! Of course we can!’ ...He’d said, ‘I can’t do this.’ And I said, ‘You
can, you can, you can! You have to! [Our grandchild] is on the couch. You have to!’
That’s when I thought we might all die. (Kristin)
Vignette 2: Regrets
We’d prepared for the fire during the week knowing it was going to be a terrible day.
We were up at five o’clock that morning. I was out on the mower, just compelled to
get out of bed, on the ride-on mower and mowed the back lawn to dirt ... Our house
is positioned such that we’ve a 360-degree view. With the first fires in the morning
we watched them from Wallan and Wandong, so we were in a high state of alert
from whatever time they started in the morning ... it was just the whole day of
escalating anticipation. We had all our fire stuff ready, the baths were filled, the
towels, all that kind of stuff. We were listening to the radio and then the power goes
off. It started to become, what I would say, is real, because you’re listening to the
radio going, ‘Oh, it’s at Wallan. It’s at here. It’s at there.’ Then all of a sudden they
were saying, ‘The fire’s at Whittlesea! The fire’s at Strathewen!’ And you think, ‘Shit!’
We don’t have any children. [My husband and I] were just watching and waiting and
watching and waiting. And then you started to hear reports, ‘Six people have been
killed in Kinglake’... And then you’re hearing reports of more people being killed and
the news is becoming more chaotic and the skies are becoming filled with smoke.
Then the sense of uncontrolled panic sets in, but it’s a calm panic ... Everybody’s in
deep shit and nobody’s going to come and help. You couldn’t contact anyone, and
we’re quite isolated on our property. Gradually, gradually you realise the fire’s not
going to pass you by. You’re going to be in it ... By this time 28 people are dead and
the level of chaos has risen. I don’t know what time it was but then we were
watching this just enormous I reckon it was going to 38,000 feet this huge
cloud. Literally, you’re a small person and the cloud’s just going like this over you and
you can see flames up into it. Gradually you start to hear explosions. You hear that
sound of the train. We were standing out looking south, probably five or six metres
from our back door, and all the birds come that are dying! We can hear our
neighbours screaming. It’s just terrible! The smoke hit and we couldn’t find the back
door. Neither of us had taken a breath. I thought we were going to die before we got
to the back door, it was that quick. You could not see your own hand. You run blindly
and you don’t know where the house is. We did get to the back door; it was only five
metres. Had everything shut to that side of the house. By this time, the bush is all on
fire ... We stayed inside long enough I don’t even know how long it was until
my husband was ready to go outside. We had fire-fighting equipment and stuff and
he went out to fight the fire, there were trees near the house. I was just frozen. I sat
in my chair like a dog in a car watching him, expecting him to drop dead from the
smoke. Or be burnt. I was just frozen. I couldn’t do anything other than just go from
room to room and watch him. I couldn’t help. (Natasha)
Vignette 3: Responsibilities
Everything went still. It was blowing a gale before and really noisy and it was
suddenly still and dauntingly silent. Then it started blowing directly over us grey
smoke and black smoke and you could hear this noise like an engine, and you could
see a glow through the trees. It was so noisy. He said, ‘Right, go inside,’ while he
finished off [the preparation]. My daughter and I were putting towels in the bath and
under the doors and windows. We could see comets of fire shooting off into the
bush and going off where they landed. My son, who was five, was a bit nervous of
course. It was before we saw the flames, but he was worried. I said, ‘Why don’t you
draw a picture?’ He said, ‘Yes, that’s a good idea.’ He drew grey smoke and black
smoke and orange flames and he started screaming because he was too scared ...
The kids were sheltering downstairs, which is the most safe and stable part of the
house. [My husband] and I were rushing up and downstairs each carrying a bucket
and mop. We had to do a tag team. It was to sprinkle water around to make
everything damp. Quite a lot of the windows cracked and some of the windows
shattered. One in my daughter’s room shattered and there were embers coming in
and he was calling me to help him. In our room the window flew open and I couldn’t
shut it. I was calling him to come and help me. You had to wet everything as soon as
it came in, and there were a couple of points downstairs too, and through the
bathroom. After a while it became really difficult to breathe. The kids were
sheltering under wet towels and we had to hold a wet towel on our face when we
went upstairs. We could take it in turns; one would go upstairs and the other would
go under the wet towel with the kids for a bit and have a sip out of the water bottle.
My son was screaming, ‘Mummy I need you! Mummy, are we going to be dead?’
[He] has since told me that when we weren’t in the room with him, he thought we
were burning to death. (Marcie)
The day after
For those who had stayed to defend properties, the next day was ominously silent. The
immense loss of wildlife and absence of traffic intensified the isolation. Venturing out,
survivors faced another dimension of trauma as they viewed evidence of the death and
destruction wrought by the fire.
On the Sunday morning we drove up into Kinglake to see. It was like a set of where a
nuclear war happened. You couldn’t believe what you were seeing. (Caitlyn)
Having physically endured Black Saturday, the days and weeks that followed were
characterised by seeking out friends, family and neighbours - telling and hearing of tragic
deaths and of survival.
Afterwards there was no power, you couldn’t get around easily, you were in daze
and in complete shock finding out every hour of the day about other people who had
died, who couldn’t be found. (Lauren)
People died. And every day was a new revelation of people who had died ... My
experience is that everybody just wanted to greet you, nobody could take on any
more stories, they’d had enough of their own. You know, ‘G’day but don’t tell me
really’. (Christina)
Expectations of masculinity
The first three days after the fires were spent in isolation from the rest of the world as
emergency services were unable to get through. Then the long recovery and reconstruction
period began, with all the attendant pressures this brought. Some local residents speak of
the aftermath as causing equal trauma. After recounting what happened and what they did
on the day of the fire, the women spoke in fragments of the state of their relationship. Their
memories of conversations, interactions and misunderstandings between themselves and
their partners on the day and in the aftermath were vivid.
Almost without exception, at some stage, the women and those around them had believed
that death was imminent. In our collective imagining of disasters like Black Saturday, we see
men as capable, defending vulnerable women and children, and saving property, and
women as passive and protected. This was not the reality. The accounts speak of courage,
persistence, and selflessness. In equal measure they speak of uncertainty, regret and terror
from both men and women.
When husbands and partners were present, some women found great solace,
inspiration and practical support. Some women described the protective measures taken
by their partners, calmly guiding and monitoring women, children and others in the
house while frantically putting out fires outside. One woman was amazed at her
husband’s ability to think fast and plan with uncanny awareness of what would be needed.
He prepared the property so they could leave, packed the chainsaw and locked up in
case of looters. In contrast, she spoke about her own panic, her ability to think clouded by
I’m wandering up and down the house, it’s only a very small house, thinking, ‘What
to take, what to take, what do I take?’ So he came in every now and again and gave
me directions, ‘Pack an esky, put the bottles of water in the fridge, take what’s
important to you’. (Carmen)
Another woman told how her husband worked ‘madly’ to save the property, interrupting his
staggering efforts in moving cattle and putting out spot fires in choking, blinding smoke, to
come back to the house to reassure and advise her and the others sheltering there. A third
woman said that her husband had obsessively prepared the south-east of their property
having accurately predicted the fire’s direction. He came back inside at just the right time as
the fire did indeed come from the south-east and ‘jumped the house’. Some men shielded
their wives and partners from seeing bodies or other distressing scenes, and some held the
horror of what they had experienced and witnessed inside, not wanting to burden others.
Sometimes it was weeks or months before the men even told their partners about the
anguish caused by what they had seen.
What he saw made him throw up ...He wouldn’t let me go into our old place because
he knew there were bodies there. So he didn’t tell me still. (Carmen)
[He] went down and they actually found a couple of bodies. That’s not something he
has told many people. Remains anyway, not identifiable. He didn’t tell me that for a
while either. (Marcie)
In contrast, other women found their men an additional burden. Some women spoke of
being shocked by their partner’s response in the life threatening Black Saturday fires. Some
were frustrated by their partner’s inaction during the fires and dismayed by the need to
take action themselves.
I don’t know what the hell he was doing, but he wasn’t bloody doing anything ...
In the end, I got sick of it and said, ‘Well, I’ll go’, so that’s what I did … He
should have gone out there, but I don’t think he had the guts to be honest with you.
One woman had a brace following a major operation and was not meant to lift, yet was left
to prepare for the fire with her teenage son. She described her husband leaving their
property to drive off the mountain even though the fire threat was high. Others, too, told
how their husbands denied that there was any danger, and continued on with plans for the
day which involved them leaving the family home despite pleas for them to stay. The
women faced accusations that they were over-reacting in asking for men to stay home, or
asking them to prepare fire fighting clothes and equipment.
I called him all day and asked him to come home and he’s like, ‘Don’t be silly’ ... He
made it home I think ten minutes before they actually shut the road. (Vanessa)
He said, ‘You’re being stupid’ and I said, ‘Okay, could you just get [the pump] out?’ ...
I had everything ready and he was a bit, ‘Oh you’re being this, you’re being that’ ...
I said, ‘Go to the front gate ... leave the gate open for me, I’m going to the garage’
[to get petrol for the fire pump] and he was standing at the front gate with it shut,
just standing, and he was like he had no input from anything, it was like he was
frozen or something. And I swore at him, and I think I said, ‘Is there something
fucking wrong with you?’ which was really cruel I know but I had to snap him out of
it. (Kristin)
Another woman recounted that her partner took her young son (his step son) with him in
his car without her knowledge or permission as he drove back up the mountain that
afternoon and into the fires.
Poor Tom still can’t go in a car that hasn’t got a lot of petrol in it cos he freaked out
on the day. He thought [they] was going to run out of fuel ...And at the same time,
that’s what gets me, it’s not the fact that they literally nearly died three or four times
just by getting caught up in stuff and making split second decisions, it’s the fact that
he didn’t even have to go there and didn’t have to do it that makes me cross ... They
tried to save a few people and couldn’t, and they pulled over and tried to get a guy
out of his car but they couldn’t, it exploded and caught on fire, and it was all a bit
traumatic. (Kelly)
Some women sadly reflected that their partners seemed to relive the danger of saving, or
attempting to save, others and blamed themselves for not doing enough. Neighbours who
perished were sources of great pain to men and a constant reminder of their own perceived
‘failures’. Regrets haunted men regardless of how they measured up to expectations of
masculinity whether externally or internally imposed. For some, no matter what they did,
it was not enough. Some men were hurt by the thought of what could have happened and
how close they and their families were to dying in the fires. Again, the pressure to ‘measure
up’ to expected and prescribed masculine behaviours was not restricted to self-imposed
reflection, but a community and media judgement about what they did on the day, with the
capricious and sometimes mistaken proclamation of heroic status for some men.
There were the decisions he made that night, that were life and death decisions and
he struggles with [ ... ] how he could have made the wrong decision and we could
have all perished. (Becky)
My husband had that feeling of he should have helped them. But the bush before
was fairly impenetrable because it had blackberries and scrub that was 10ft high to
get through. So he had a lot of remorse ... it was a husband and wife and two
young children that would have died less than 200-300m away from our house.
Oh yes, the lack of acknowledgement. They are the professional firefighters, it was
their job to stop the unstoppable. They bear the grief and the loss and the guilt and
they had all those people die, and we knew them all... I went to ... funerals for 24
people, two of them were triple funerals ... The whole community is traumatised,
but the DSE boys silently bear the guilt of it because they were the professionals.
This is their mindset ... they feel they failed, and they feel their friends died because
of it and I could see [my husband] reliving those moments, where he could have
done something differently and saved a life. (Miranda)
While some women reflected on their own reactions to Black Saturday as inadequate,
concluding they were ultimately unable to function effectively, most accounts revealed their
clarity of thought in the most life-threatening situations. They planned ahead, anticipated
problems and solutions, and drew on implicit knowledge to get around seemingly
insurmountable problems.
The only thing I could think of was that in 2006 the fires came through the Glenburn
area and there were bare paddocks where it had burnt out, plus they put in the
pipeline so I knew there had to be a flat spot, maybe even a tunnel ditch, which we
could shelter in, so we drove there. (Ruby)
I checked on that plume of smoke every 10 minutes, I took photos of it and all our
photos we used in the Royal Commission my husband gave evidence there.
He got to the fire station and rang me ... ‘Liv, there’s hundreds of people here’
and I could hear [a friend] screaming, ‘We’re going to die, we’re going to die.’
[My husband’s] saying, ‘Liv, we’re dead, we’re dead. We’re gone.’ I said, ‘No
you’re not. [There’s a] generator. They’ve got a bore out the back, Go and
find it. There’s tanks out the back. Go there and find it. Tell me when you’ve
found it.’ (Liv)
Incredibly, anticipating their own deaths in the bushfire, two women thought to advise
I thought ‘I don’t know who knows we’re here and I thought someone needs to
know’. So I tried to ring triple 0 and I couldn’t get through and so I rang a police
number … I wasn’t saying to her send someone to come and get us, I was
saying I just wanted her to note that we were there and how many were there.
When finally she got through to someone on triple 0, my daughter who was now in
[organising] mode had said on the phone to them … ‘All right, no, no, that’s alright, I
know you can’t get to us.’ There was something she said that let me know that they
couldn’t do anything - ‘they’ meaning Emergency Services. She said, ‘We just need to
let you know to look for six people’, and I thought, ‘She thinks we’re going to die’.
Women alone
Thirteen women in the sample were left alone to care for children and bring them to safety.
Even when men were physically present, sometimes women were left alone with this
When the car stalled, he just collapsed. He got out of the car and sort of went into
the foetal position ... I just looked at him and I said, ‘We’ve got four kids, we don’t
have time for this, get up’... I had one kid not breathing properly and his sister was
trying to take care of him and she had broken her collar bone and I don’t know
whether she reinjured it by carrying him. My husband ... was just in too much shock
or whatever...then he just went totally into like he was in control and knows better
and went in the lead and actually didn’t see anything else happening around him…
He didn’t see that Bobbie wasn’t breathing. He didn’t compute at all, but he had to
be in the lead and about fifty paces ahead of everyone. (Vanessa)
Some women drove out alone.
I’m driving about 30km an hour because you can’t see, I’ve got the pup, four
gallons of water and a woollen blanket and [before I left my husband] had said,
‘Now if you get in a wall of flames on the road drive through the bush’.
Even when not forced into fight or flight, women alone were both vigilant and frightened of
what was to come, acutely aware of their responsibility to protect their children’s young
lives. One woman told of a friend who hitched the caravan to the car and put the children to
sleep in the caravan then sat up all night watching. Women whose husbands or partners
worked for council or emergency services were definitely on their own as these services
struggled to cope.
Some women felt quite betrayed with their husbands off helping other people. Not
one person in the CFA in [one town] went home to their own house, they all lost
their own homes. (Christina)
A lot of families are hurt that they weren’t there to help, even though it’s a big
responsibility for us. The women had a big job that day ... [My partner] and I have
never spoken about if this happened, what would I do? It was never an issue. We
never had a fire plan. You thought he’d be here. My fire plan was him ... I thought I
would have his help. (Jess)
Pressures after the fires
The immediate and primary reaction to the bushfire was shock from its intensity and the
reality of all that had happened. Then awareness grew of the depth of loss and the extent of
damage to the landscape. For some, the ‘high alert’ stage continued for days and weeks, all
through a veil of exhaustion.
For the next five days the sheep remained in the stable as fires continued to rage on
three sides of us. We had no power and no telephones and the radio was filled with
stories of hopelessness, death and destruction. (Amanda)
You couldn’t even leave because you had to keep putting stuff out literally, for a
month. (Vanessa)
It was 8 weeks after the fires that I got woken up at in the morning by my local fire
brigade because my creek was burning again. Tree stumps burn underground for
months ... Everyone was under constant threat. There were houses burnt down a
week later. Because people had gone out and all of a sudden the house was gone. It
was constantly burning. (Liv)
Coexisting with the long period of being on alert, people heard of friends, neighbours and
children who died. For some, the first reports came with the approaching fire, and seemed
incredible. But the reports kept coming. In the days after, the women spoke of learning who
had survived, who was missing and who had died in the fires.
[My friend’s] pager constantly went off, ‘Mother, two kids, trapped in home.’ All
these addresses we knew where all these people lived. ‘Elderly lady, looking after
grandkids trapped in home.’ ‘This person trapped, can’t get out. Needs assistance.’
But there’s no one up there to help. The last page came through at 5.30 that
morning. (Liv)
Funerals were held, bringing more sadness, and more guilt when women couldn’t go, or
couldn’t face it. All of the women in this research lost friends, relatives, neighbours or
clients. One spoke of the sad death of a loved child carer and the effect on her children.
Women spoke of hierarchies of loss. There was a sense that people’s experiences and losses
were being ranked. Some felt that differentiation had resonance.
No women who lost immediate family elected to participate in this research.
All I saw was my place burn and that’s nothing, that’s nothing. But to know when I’m
sitting there watching my place burn, that my friends were dying is another thing ... I
know I’ve lost the house, I know what it feels like to not be able to go home, but I tell
you what ... I just think, ‘Oh my God, suck it up, suck it up. It’s a house, some people
have lost people, that doesn’t even compare’. (Vanessa)
Although survivor guilt has lost its pre-eminence in formal trauma studies since its removal
from the DSM-III in 1987, it retains its currency in post-disaster support and reporting
(Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement; Leys, 2006). Participants in this research
reported guilt if they still had a house, if they still had an income, and if all their children
survived. Survivor guilt, however, is not limited to self-reflection. Some women felt they
were expected to rank and sometimes deny their personal sense of loss.
[My husband] was here but he never understood what it was like for me or some of
the people dealing with it, and a lot of his group thought [unless] you lived there and
you lost your house and family [...then] you should not be affected by it. But people
are. (Hailey)
Some of the things that have been said to me subsequently, ‘It’s alright for you. You
weren’t burnt out’. (Amanda)
Some women found losing their home a source of great sadness a loss of memories,
family history, even identity. Their bricks and mortar were bound up with values and
relationships. They remembered why they settled there and the plans and dreams that led
them there. They had built the homes themselves or with partners, they spoke of solar
panels and ideals, and gardens lovingly created and tended. For some, the family home had
absolutely vanished.
It wasn’t the Taj Mahal but it kept the cold and the rain out for 25 years ... Whatever
else went wrong in your life you could come home and look around and think, ‘I built
this’. (Jill)
When we got to our property [after the fires] we had space suits on and it was 34
degrees it was very hot. There was nothing left, nothing left at all ... and the kids
would search for something but there was just nothing. Nothing for us to salvage.
For these women the destruction of their home meant loss of the lifestyle they valued. The
fires at least temporarily took away their purpose and future dreams. Some spoke of
why they decided to live in Kinglake or Marysville or Flowerdale or any of the small towns in
the region. Country life allowed freedoms like walking dogs without leads, pushing prams
without cars speeding by, family recreation opportunities caravans, boats, pools, horses.
Some had history, some had plans, at varying stages of fruition, all stalled or stopped by the
I can still picture everything as it was, and I know growing up I spent heaps of time
there, just roller-blading around and doing what kids do, playing footy and things like
that. I just picture everything as it was. (Hailey)
A great sorrow for most of the women was the loss of the landscape they loved. Whether
the forested mountainous landscape or their own small gardens, the landscape had
changed. Women spoke of resenting the vistas or houses or lights that they did not see
before the fires burnt their treed landscape. The once familiar landscape was now foreign
and an unwelcome reminder, reiterating the importance of place.
The trees. The trees just don’t go away. They just don’t go away. I don’t know how
long till we can’t see the black trees and I know that reminder, that constant
reminder, has moved people off the mountain. (Vanessa)
There are parts of the landscape now that are changed forever and I can’t bear to
look at those. There are places I don’t like to go because people died there …. I can’t
believe it all happened. (Lauren)
The landscapes traversed in the daily commute from home to work was a constant reminder
of all that had happened.
You would be in Yea looking at semi-green ‘cos we got a bit of rain, and then you’d
drive through all the burnt bush, and then you get into the burbs, and it was like you
went through three headspaces by the time you got to work. And you knew on the
way back you had to go through that bloody head space again. (Jill)
The ‘headspace’ was all that happened from February 9th. Although they had survived,
there was a mental and emotional toll.
Even an event such as Black Saturday does not alleviate the demands on people to keep up
with their responsibilities. They are expected to keep on going despite urgent demands in
every direction. Financial distress was foremost for many disaster survivors. Borrell (2011)
writes that after disaster people face immediate loss of status, and estimates that 80 per
cent of welfare recipients would not previously have relied on it. Money problems not only
added to the multiple stressors and potential triggers which increased the likelihood and
severity of domestic violence (Jenkins & Phillips, 2008b), it effectively prevented escape for
women and children experiencing violence from husbands and fathers.
The result of the economic difficulty is that victims may find themselves unable to
leave a situation or take legal action to keep themselves and their children safe. In
other words, the disruption caused by the disaster can exacerbate potentially violent
situations. (Phillips, Jenkins et al., 2010, p. 288)
For many men and women, whether employed or self-employed, their financial
circumstances had been affected by the fires. Income was affected in the short term
through workplaces burning down. Farms, businesses, hotels, offices, health premises and
industries were all affected. In the longer term, employment security was tenuous as
survivors often could not simply resume their former employment as if nothing had
happened. Table 2 shows that five women lost their jobs as a result of the fires and a further
six were unable to continue in previous jobs for a range of reasons. Eleven lost their home
and two lost businesses or premises. Mental health issues slowly emerged, preventing a
stable return to work for many and affecting relationships. Those who had been employed
casually found it harder to pick up work after extended periods away. Both lack of interest in
work, and overwork emerged as symptoms of distress.
Table 2: Job loss, occupation, and lost home
Lost job after fires
Lost home
Health professional
Natural therapist
Self employed - OK
Hospitality worker
Not reported
Unpaid community work
Not applicable
Paid community worker
Not stated8
Self employed
Placed her (own) business on
Not reported
Yes, rented
Family business
Senior health professional
Stress leave then lesser position
Transport industry
Studying and part time work in
allied health
Family business and now new
Not applicable
Disability worker
No paid work
Not applicable
Not reported
Studio burnt, had to hire office
No, lost home office
Workplace burnt, some delay in
Health professional
No, lost business
Retired, farmer
No, retired and now farmer
Yes, lost farm income
Yes, employer’s place of
business burnt
Yes, forced to move
from rented house
No paid work
Unable to continue study
Senior health administrator
Yes, used leave until forced to
resign unable to resume high
level job
Shop supervisor
Unpaid community worker
Not applicable
Health professional
Needed to resign to emotionally
support children
As noted in the methodology section, the semi-structured nature of the interviews allowed women to speak of what was
important to them, and no standardised data-set was sought. As a result, some data is unavailable as reflected in this table.
With fractured employment and income, finances were further stretched as people were
forced to find accommodation, sometimes paying the mortgage on damaged houses while
paying rent on a habitable house. Eleven of the women spoke of the burden of rent or
mortgage payments to them and their partners. The immediate focus was necessarily on re-
establishing where they would live and replacing cars. Shared accommodation was fraught
as survivors, although thankful for the kindness of others in offering their homes,
experienced it as a further pressure. Overcrowding was unavoidable, and small children and
adults alike were unsettled.
My brother at the time had a one-year old and a four-year old and we stayed there
until May, and lived with him in his living room. (Megan)
We ended up with family and friends, it was very crowded and very hard because
everyone had their ups and downs. (Jess)
And see the pressure is on him as well because we just want our house back because
our daughter and son-in-law and the grandkids have lived with us for over a year
now. They’re still there.
[How’s that going?]
It’s terrible. (Kristin)
A further demand was income production while trying to repair homes or restore fences or
shedding to properties, or help neighbours re-establish. Claiming insurance was fraught with
difficulties, with some having to settle in court, and payouts not always covering the costs of
rebuilding or repairing. Overlapping bureaucratic requirements of grant and insurance
claims, federal, state and local government regulations and processes, together with
understanding the acceptance criteria of individual support services all had to be navigated.
Case managers were not always allocated in a timely manner, if at all, and were not equally
valuable. Perceived and actual inequities in insurance, grant payments and provision of
goods and equipment compounded the emotional strain. Bureaucratic requirements for
grants, insurance and council permits, too, were onerous and time-consuming. The
regulatory process associated with re-building was exacerbated by new standards after the
bushfire and a cause of intense stress to survivors.
Those with children had to re-arrange their children’s schooling as schools had burnt down
and bus routes were no longer feasible. Lack of childcare sometimes prevented return to
work, especially as children were in a vulnerable state after experiencing the disaster or its
effects. Decision making in this sensitive time was often fraught with conflict and
disagreement. Everything changed for survivors. The immediate bonding after disaster is
known to be followed by cleavage (Borrell, 2011) and turmoil in personal circumstances was
reflected at the community level. Teresa spoke of everyone being ‘on edge’ with raw
emotions. In an email following her interview, Kristin provided a powerful and detailed
description of the community violence:
There have been really awful confrontations, threats, arguments and extreme
bullying as many men bore a heightened compulsion for power/dominance. Most of
these men were 'smile and nod' acquaintances pre-fire, but they were now met with
regularly. We (other women and myself) experienced direct personal bullying and
threats on far too many occasions. I have personally witnessed other women
become the dart boards for such violence. I have had screaming, frothing bullies
inches from my face or thumping a meeting table where I thought they'd hit me
while I stood my ground. I have intervened on a number of occasions where a female
friend (or two) have been literally backed up against a wall, or cornered, with a
grossly threatening local man verbally assaulting them. I cannot believe I did not go
immediately to the local police at the time. On one night after Feb 7 - Sunday 8th
Feb - I was savagely (verbally) abused by a neighbour - one of the worst instances
I've experienced. That was definitely reportable but being that emergency vehicles
were like a lather of chaos all over the main street, and being in what I now know
was shock, it was difficult to report abuse and threats. It didn't seem the right time
to report it, I think. How you can ask a member of the police force to help you when
they are midst lifting tin off dead people? ... So, the question of, 'Have you
experienced violence since the fires? Yep. En masse! In the street, in public, in
private. (Kristin, email 7.1.12)
Anger emerged within communities with conflicting views of residents leading to factions as
to what the ‘new normal’ might look like. Communities struggled to imagine a shared
future. While some people retreated to heal, others came forward to take lead roles in the
community. Yet others claimed bad behaviour as their right as survivors a right that was
often accepted by others. The community unravelled to the extent that one resident, a year
later, said: ‘I hardly recognise the place now. I look around and I don’t know what ethos it is
we hold on to’ (Parkinson, 2012a, p. 17).
Increased alcohol and drug abuse
A number of studies have found that there is greater use of alcohol and drugs in the
aftermath of disasters (Enarson, 2012; Fothergill, 2008; Palinkas et al., 1993). This research
indicated that a convergence of factors led to a sudden and apparently widespread reliance
on alcohol and drugs in the aftermath of the fires.
A lot of heavy drinking went on with men early on ... The socialising happened
around the pub and that’s where you console yourself. Especially in winter, with
delays in building, you’re stuck in a small space, with a lot of relationship problems.
(Case Manager, cited in Parkinson & Zara, 2012d, p. 131)
Such alcohol abuse is unsurprising given the societal acceptance of alcohol in Australia,
particularly in times of stress (Allsop, 2013). Recovery workers spoke about perceptions of
alcohol as self-medication and a legitimate response to stresses in the aftermath of Black
Saturday, with one asking, ‘The people that say they shouldn’t do that, well who are they to
say they shouldn’t be doing it? ... that’s what blokes do’ (Parkinson & Zara, 2012d, p. 130). It
was seen as a valid way to cope with stress - and as an alternative to legally prescribed
medication or counselling. Workers spoke of alcohol as an effective way to encourage men
to talk of their experiences and problems. A consultant in the Canberra bushfire
reconstruction said, ‘We put on special events which often involved a slab of beer in which
the men would talk about that stuff’, and a local worker said, ‘The blokes get a few drinks
into them and they talk about shit and that’s their form of counselling. That’s what they do’
(Parkinson & Zara, 2012d, p. 131). Alcohol was generally included in community dinners,
and initial recovery meetings were held in the local pub in one town each morning with
alcohol service. A community leader noticed grant monies being spent on such self-
You don’t go [to] people who’ve just gone through a disaster and say, ‘Here’s a
couple of grand mate, go and get pissed and you’ll feel all right’ because quite
frankly, that’s what they did. (Community Leader cited in Parkinson & Zara, 2012d, p.
The way alcohol presented as a problem changed as time progressed. In the week after the
fire, more men than women remained, or returned early, to fire-affected areas. Without the
tempering effect of women, some men were getting together and drinking to excess. Two
women spoke of returning to their homes to find them turned into impromptu pubs,
complete with drinking men.
My house was turned into a pub, it was a mess, there were things everywhere, not
just ash stuff but cans of food stuff and things that were just being handed out ...
there were five guys ... all pissed as newts ... There was a lot of free booze. (Carmen)
After this initial time, when women and children had returned, both men and women were
self-medicating with alcohol and drugs. One woman said drug and alcohol abuse was
widespread in households in the first six months amongst groups of men, and for some
[A] lot of men who were really, really traumatised ... really started to drink ... I do
know a couple of times after drinking, a few of the blokes would cry. There are a lot
of women drinking too, including me. I got to a stage where sometimes I was having
to drink to go to sleep. (Brigit)
Our place was a refuge. And so everyone who’d lost their homes would come, and
pretty much most afternoons and evenings I’d be cooking … I just remember
cooking, cooking, nurture, nurture, and you know wine and cigarettes and dope and
everything just became the evening afternoon pattern for quite a long time. But for
[my husband] it became very much earlier in the morning and a lot more reliant and
a lot more a coping mechanism. (Becky)
Carmen spoke of her husband admitting to being ‘a closet alcoholic [and drinking]
sometimes at 10 in the morning’. When asked if he did that before the fires, she said, ‘Oh
hell no, hell no’. Other women, too, noticed their husband’s self-medication becoming
And he just started drinking a lot more, a lot more. I thought he drank a lot before
[the fires], I think it doubled ... it just went out of control, and I think it peaked
around December or January, just every single day and night. (Lauren)
Everybody could see that he changed, they could see he changed at work and that
he was not coping, that he was drinking and that he shut down. (Miranda)
So he was drinking, throwing himself into work, but being completely ineffectual ...
then they eventually pushed him out and it was all very acrimonious and in the
meantime he was angry and irritable, drinking. (Audrey)
A strong association between alcohol and violence has been identified in the domestic
violence literature (Abramsky et al., 2011; Braaf, 2012; Foran & O'Leary, 2008; Livingston,
2011). This was apparent to some women in this study who observed alcohol changed their
partner’s personality, endangering those close to them.
I mean he has his good moments and he can take one mouthful of alcohol and that’s
it, he changes ... Probably the worst [times] are when he’s been with other guys,
yeah, it’s like a drinking session. (Lauren)
The women observed other community members, too, grief-stricken with no strategies to
cope, ‘deteriorating’ through their substance abuse and resulting in volatility in the
community and the home. Where there was a history of drug abuse, it re-emerged,
apparently in response to Black Saturday.
Pre-fires everything was going really, really well and he was determined never to be
on drugs again … Everything was happy … And then the fire hit. (Becky)
Psychological effects of disaster
What is clear is that Black Saturday was disturbing to those who lived through the fires. For
some perhaps many survivors, it will remain raw and traumatic.
Terms like ‘depression’ and ‘anxiety’ were used in a colloquial, conversational sense rather than as diagnoses and are
repeated here in the same way.
Yeah, it was a day. But I know that for people who are traumatised from this, that
have lost their friends or even seen horrific stuff, that’s going to feel like yesterday to
them, for the next ten years. People don’t get that. They think that they’re going to
get over it and its going to be ok. But it’s not. You learn to live with it, you don’t get
over it. (Louise)
Some of the women interviewed had been diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
or depression as a result of the fires and most spoke of feelings of anxiety, panic,
hopelessness, lost interest or inability to function at some stage. They conveyed a sense of
inevitability about ‘falling in a heap’ and knew they had to live through these bad times.
You can’t happy yourself up, you’ve just got to go through all the crap ... Nothing’s
going to be good for a while. (Jill)
I was low. Very low. Nearly every woman I spoke to said the same thing. (Audrey)
After a week I went, ‘Oh, I should go back to work’ and I just sort of started like
nothing had happened and I went back to work … But then things just unravelled.
At times, some questioned their own sanity:
I felt at one stage it was a psychotic thing where I asked this of the counsellor,
‘Sometimes I think I did die and I think we all did die and is this is a whole different
reality where we don’t know we died?’ (Kristin)
I had terrible nightmares, and we woke up one night and I said, ‘I don’t know if I’m
dead or alive’ and for months couldn’t really assess whether I had died and whether
this is death, or whether I was alive or it was a dream. (Ruby)
One woman spoke of barely sleeping, instead reliving the whole experience over and over in
her head. Another’s husband slept only two hours a night for months. Understandably,
ability to concentrate was very low and even remembering small tasks was challenging.
There was no capacity for complexity. This affected partners and children too.
Last year was a wasted year for her, school wise, she couldn’t concentrate ... the
teacher wrote she didn’t complete the year but it was understandable after what
happened. (Dana)
He could not take any other thing other than what he had to concentrate on. If it
was something as simple as washing his hands, all other input was too much.
Women related how they changed after the fires, some becoming more and more
introverted from society and from their partners.
I became deeply, deeply introverted in the period after the fire. More and more and
more avoided things, avoided talking about the fire, basically it just didn’t happen.
And that made me sick eventually, but that was my response and it probably suited
[my partner] too ... Anything emotional he will just shut it out. It’s too overwhelming
to him, can’t deal with it so it just doesn’t exist ... It makes it impossible to relate to
another human ... We just became more and more and more this isolated little
couple, and our property’s isolated so that helps. (Natasha)
I feel like I've got chains wrapped around me at the moment. I've got all this stuff in
my head but I don’t know how to process it or put it into action ... I used to be quite
a social bee, but I prefer to be by myself a bit now. It’s just nice and quiet. I just want
to be alone. (Jess)
One woman described the concept of de-bonding, explained to her by her psychologist.
A de-bonding experience, that’s how it was explained to me, is where you face your
death and you reconcile to your death, and in the process of doing that de-bond ...
from close emotional ties, like your wife and children. It’s a way of becoming OK with
imminent death. (Miranda)
Nineteen women felt close to death and 18 believed their partners thought death was
imminent. Some women stated that this would inevitably have had a negative effect on
their relationship.
Even if you don’t admit it to yourself intellectually, in a way you’ve kind of said
goodbye to everything. And it’s just occurred to me that actually one of those things
is that you say goodbye to one another ...[and that] is certainly going to be having an
impact on how we feel about one another. (Amanda)
One woman felt her husband became less patient and quicker to judge because he had to
face his mortality, and suggested his thinking became distorted.
It’s because’ they’re’ against him, because he’s done something and they’ve found
out about it and they’re getting back at him ... It’s really paranoid. (Lauren)
Another spoke of her husband’s behaviour after the fires as very different from before. His
moods ranged from being in total control to complete withdrawal. In rebuilding their house,
builders would contact her, saying he was having a bad day. His loss of memory, for
example, of conversations, led to feelings of paranoia. He accused his step-child of trying to
poison him and his wife of having an affair. He wanted to involve police with what he
thought were suspicious telephone calls. He became obsessive, running at all times of the
day, then cycling day and night, then fanatically going to the gym.
It’s like living with three different people, you know, you just can’t tell on any given
day, is he going to be angry today? Is he going to be solemn today? Where he
normally had been a fairly balanced person. (Courtney)
Two women spoke of being very fearful that their partners would commit suicide, based on
innuendo and statements of life not being worth living.
He had said, ‘I might top myself’, but never, ‘This is how I would do it’ … he didn’t
have a true suicide plan, just suicidal thoughts. (Audrey)
Another two women called the police when their husbands actually attempted suicide. One
woman knew of three suicide attempts amongst the fire crew her husband was part of, and
suggested it was commonplace.
Every time you hear about somebody, it’s a man, it’s always men, ready to check out
rather than face another day. Something’s got to change. (Miranda)
According to Western definitions of masculine behaviour, anger is more acceptable than
tears (Connell, 2005; Pease, 2010b). Women made the connection between the men’s
experience of Black Saturday, and the way they channelled their grief and distress into
anger. Many of the women spoke of their partners’ anger and the seemingly uncensored
way they expressed it. The danger for women with violent partners or ex-partners is both
direct and indirect in the aftermath of disasters. Anastario et al. (2009) found that women
who experienced domestic violence after Hurricane Katrina were 10.4 times more likely to
report symptoms of Major Depressive Disorder than other women, and Frasier et al. (2004)
found consistently higher reports of stress, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and other
psychological problems amongst victims of domestic violence.
Re-emergence of past trauma
Where people had a history of trauma, Black Saturday brought it all back. The fires woke up
and exacerbated what had seemed to be resolved. Previous traumas and long-buried fears,
believed to be overcome, emerged again.
I noticed he was volatile. He always had issues of possibly depression or … even
borderline personality disorder which we were discovering because all these things
had been exacerbated. So there were times of emotional issues before, quite
significant ones, but they were more manageable. Post-fire they became
unbearable. (Becky)
It’s not just the issue of the fire, it’s a hundred things. The fire has just triggered a
hundred things. (Bess)
Some women spoke of their own or their partner’s experience of trauma before Black
Saturday, suggesting it was implicated in ongoing struggles in recovering from the fires.
They spoke of layer upon layer of assault to one’s being. If people appeared to be
functioning well and seemed to have overcome previous trauma, the fires disturbed any
semblance of recovery. The women referred to their partners’ histories of traumatic
upbringings or tragic incidents in childhood, or childhood sexual assault. Some had felt
helpless as a child, some with abusive alcoholic fathers. One had wartime trauma as an adult
in the military. Each woman fearfully and sympathetically made the link between her
partner’s behaviour, the previous trauma and the fires.
The aggression in that family reached the point where my husband’s brother at 12 or
13 years of age took his father by the throat and was going to stab him over a game
... This is the fear I have because of the anger my husband has in him. He had a very
traumatic childhood. (Tanya)
He’s had a history, got a bit better but never really dealt with anything and it all just
got worse after the fires and after repeated losses. (Audrey)
The women, too, had suffered in the past. Christina spoke movingly of the death of her
baby, and Louise of her mother’s murder. Trauma from previous bushfire experiences was a
further stress.
When I was 14 our house burnt down so it’s triggered a lot of stuff from then, the
smell’s triggered a lot of stuff. And then my Mum. So I know what that feels like, to
be totally shattered. [The fire has] triggered me where I couldn’t even think. (Louise)
The interviews presented a strong picture of counselling either not sought or not successful
and a resurfacing of previous, unresolved trauma.
Various experiences from the past that had been traumatic and that we’d dealt with
before all sort of came in together, and suddenly you’re finding yourself immersed in
this background of traumas from the past, not necessarily shared ones either ... It’s
almost as though you revisit previous emotions where you felt out of your depth.
Past trauma lay under the surface, ready to be revived and exacerbated by the bushfires.
For some, the new trauma led to introversion, withdrawal, isolation, and denial of any
problem, and for others, to increased aggression or symptoms of mental ill health.
There is now a post traumatic stress issue on top of whatever there might have been
before the fires. I feel that because he is harbouring so much that it all becomes too
much and his [violent] responses are now more dramatic. (Lauren)
[My husband] was a reasonably fragile character before, but he was a whole egg.
Whatever happened to him through the fires smashed him. Whereas a stronger shell
might have held, he was smashed and his moral compass was decimated. (Miranda)
Relationships in crisis
Disaster researchers have lamented the lack of research with intimate partners during and
after natural disasters, noting that existing research examines individuals often with little
recognition of constructed gender roles or more rarely, examines ‘the family unit’ – again
omitting consideration of gender roles (Bolin et al., 1998; Cohan & Cole, 2002; Enarson &
Scanlon, 1999; Tyler & Fairbrother, 2013a). Bolin, et al. (1998) point out that that the family
unit is assumed to be in unison, homogenous, stable and equitable. They remind us that this
approach ‘is at considerable odds with recent research that analyses families and
households as arenas in which gender relations can reflect, different, even opposing
interests, and one in which exploitation of women is common, even endemic ‘ (Bolin et al.,
1998, p. 33).
In their report three and a half years after the Canberra bushfires, Camilleri et al. found that
22.4 per cent of survey respondents said the bushfire had a lasting detrimental effect on
family relationships (2007, pp. 47-48). The focus of this research is on intimate partners. The
findings reveal profound relationship stress that the women believed was brought on or
seriously exacerbated by Black Saturday.
Most interviews were held close to the second anniversary of Black Saturday. Of the 30
women, nine had separated from their partner since the fires and most of those still
together were struggling. Some were working on reviving their relationship, and others
were biding time while the children were still at home. The reasons given for relationship
breakdown varied and were sometimes ostensibly unconnected to the bushfire. Yet women
explicitly made the connection to the underlying trauma wrought by the fires and to the
huge stresses people were carrying as a result of Black Saturday as reasons for relationship
It’s the biggest thing I’ve ever been through, the biggest challenge to our marriage
we’ve ever been through. I knew we were fighting about everything, and we never
used to fight. Everything was just so hard ... I was angry because he wouldn’t address
the problems and I couldn’t live with them. (Kristin)
The women reflected on the extent of relationship breakdown amongst people they knew.
Marriages are just breaking up like you wouldn’t believe. And the thing is even my
friends who had very grounded relationships have struggled. (Ruby)
The more you talk to other friends, they say, ‘Oh, so and so’s husband, they had
trouble too and he flipped out and took off’. So I know that there’s quite a few
others. (Caitlyn)
Most of the mountain is divorced now. Or if they’re not separated they’re nearly
there … We could easily start a dating agency up here. It would be huge! Yeah, or a
singles night or taking a singles bus trip off the mountain once a month with
everyone that’s separated. You’d need about 20 busses. (Liv)
Research shows the ‘routes through which such disaster might affect couples’ (Cohan &
Cole, 2002, p. 15) either by compounding existing strains or by introducing new conflict.
Cohan and Cole (2002) identify these routes as stressful events, economic circumstances,
mental health, and communication. In particular, they point to Post-Traumatic Stress
Disorder which affects communication and potentially reduces the support spouses provide
to each other, particularly when coping with overwhelming feelings. They write that
‘spouses were less effective at soliciting and providing support to their partners when they
reported more negative events’ (Cohan & Cole, 2002, p. 15). Their research following
Hurricane Hugo in the United States in 1989 found that gravity of injury, life threat and
economic impact predicted level of marital stress (Cohan & Cole, 2002).
When undertaking this research, some health professionals and community members
asserted that if there was an increase in marriage breakdowns in the aftermath of Black
Saturday, it was only in troubled relationships. However, this research shows that to be
inaccurate, echoing other published observations following disasters. Writing after the 1991
Oakland Berkeley Firestorm in the United States, Hoffman (1998, p. 58) wrote that ‘many
unions, long and short, broke apart’, and following the 2003 Canberra bushfire, Camilleri et
al. noted it caused ‘a very negative effect on the family by compounding problems or
difficulties that the family was already facing’ (Camilleri et al., 2007, p. 48). After Black
Saturday, too, even secure partnerships suffered under the weight of so many pressures
It’s a huge, huge percentage of relationship break downs ... because it strips back all
the perceptions and all the things that we put around us. Any relationships that were
having trouble were hugely exacerbated but ... there are certainly relationships that I
know directly, that were doing quite well but are hitting rocky ground because of the
fact of being stripped back bare. People are questioning who they are, where they’re
going and their place in the world. (Becky)
An important text by Kai Erikson nearly four decades ago (1976) still resonates in its insight
into the suffering of individuals and communities after disaster. Importantly, this inquiry
extended to include couples:
Wives and husbands discovered that they did not know how to nourish one another,
make decisions, or even to engage in satisfactory conversations when the
community was no longer there to provide a context and set a rhythm. There has
been a sharp increase in the divorce rate, but that statistical index does not begin to
express the difficulties the survivors have relating to their spouses. (Erikson, 1976, p.
Erikson’s analysis articulated the layers of trauma suffered by survivors of the 1972 Buffalo
Creek flood disaster in the U.S. both individual trauma, which he defined as ‘a blow to the
psyche that breaks through one's defences so suddenly and with such force that one cannot
respond effectively’ and collective trauma, defined as ‘a blow to the tissues of social life that
damages the bonds linking people together and impairs the prevailing sense of
communality’ (Erikson, 1976, p. 302). Hoffman (1998) encapsulated this from her own first-
person experience:
While standing amid the rubble of my home, I also stood amid the rubble of a social
and cultural system. An entire community and its trappings, both physical and
metaphysical, had been dismantled, and I was seared as close as any anthropologist
ever comes into a cultural void. (Hoffman, 1998, p. 56)
Disasters see the concurrence of traumas, complicating recovery for individuals as the
relationship and the community they relied upon are equally fragile. Echoing Erikson’s
findings (1976), in this research women spoke of wanting ‘him’ to be there at some level –
and he wasn’t. As individuals, people were not travelling well, not coping with the trauma or
the daily pressures. It seemed that, barely able to keep their own heads above water, they
could not emotionally support their partner.
Our fuses are very short. A lot of what we say is unedited ... You’ve got all the
responsibilities, and you can’t handle anybody else’s needs. You know, if [my
partner] would start whinging to me about something, ‘I can’t deal with your
problems, if you’re feeling unwell with your injury or whatever, I can’t handle that’.
I’ve just managed to tread water myself. (Amanda)
The first ... weeks after were really hard. Everything just fell apart. It seemed like we
couldn’t really talk to each other about it. It was like my feelings were burdening him
because he had his own feelings. (Marcie)
The urgency for action during the fires and in the recovery period meant practical matters
took precedence over emotional needs.
I think it’s been over nearly two and a half months since we’ve been together.
There’s nothing. I feel like there’s a wall between us ... We’re not close anymore like
we used to be, that might be me as well, but we’re just always tired and busy with
the house. (Jess)
Women spoke of not talking together as a couple about their reactions and feelings, of
being tense and uptight with each other, and of conversations getting ‘quite rough’ because
neither one was balanced. One woman spoke of feeling tearful and overwhelmed and being
told by her husband, ‘No, don’t cry, you have to be strong’. She stated that he could not
tolerate her feelings of devastation. Another woman suggested her partner would not let
her talk about the fires because it reminded him of his own experience which he did not
want to face. For many couples, neither partner had the resources to help the other.
People are going to say more stuff than they normally would because they’re tired,
exhausted, traumatised. (Louise)
Those who faced the fires together inevitably reflected on that and drew conclusions about
how they had worked together. One woman looked back with pride, seeing their work as a
team, while her female partner looked back with anger, feeling abandoned. Yet the anger
did not come easily. It festered under the surface while she struggled to understand what
she was feeling. For many survivors of Black Saturday, feelings that emerged in the time
immediately after were un-named and unaddressed. For women, anger is not an acceptable
emotion, so angry women sometimes repressed this emotion.
After Black Saturday, accusations went both ways as partners blamed each other for action
or inaction, courage or cowardice, competence or ineptitude. One example of this is given
by Christina, who spoke of being unfavourably compared to other women who physically
helped with fighting flames, while her contributions in the home and on the property were
not recognised. She said she was considered ‘worthless with the fires’ by her partner. In
contrast, where women were visibly and energetically working at the community level,
criticisms were levelled at their lack of attention within the home and the relationship.
There’s a bit of resentment with him thinking I should have been more helpful to him
[but] I knew that he was there and I had to do my job. (Brigit)
But it was all my fault. If I wasn’t such a bitch he wouldn’t need to take drugs. And he
wouldn’t need to do bad things to support his drug habit if I was more supportive.
As Hoffman observed after the Oakland Berkeley Firestorm, ‘women retreated in silence
and acquiesced’ (1998, p. 57). Sometimes, retreat from a partner resulted from deeply felt
disappointment in his behaviour in the fire and then subsequent guilt as women
acknowledged the horror of what he, too, had been through and his continuing pain. Valent,
too, writes of this:
Unfulfilled desires to be protected led to a sense of wilful personal abandonment
and betrayal by trusted protectors. Anger, disillusionment, and despair were felt
towards such people. Guilt for such feelings was felt subsequently, as the loved
protectors had also experienced great distress. (1984, p. 293)
It seemed the demands to be everything to everyone after the fires were felt by men, too.
Women spoke of feeling neglected as their partners attended to community needs,
resulting in greater fragility in the relationship.
He’d say that he was doing everything for everyone and he would go off and it would
almost be a relief to me that he left. (Marcie)
Perhaps inevitably, people drifted apart, solidifying into their own disquiet.
I could feel him going down the tube and I could just feel us becoming more and
more isolated within ourselves, but not even a pair of isolated people, two isolated
people, and I just thought I could get on with things. (Natasha)
He’d just sit there and it was sort of like, ‘Now it’s my time watching TV’ so I wasn’t
supposed to talk, and then he’d go to sleep in the chair most nights. And I just
thought, ‘Well stuff it, I might as well go and sleep down in the bloody shed with the
dogs ‘cos this isn’t really a relationship any more’. (Jill)
For many women, it was a conscious decision to put aside any attention to emotion simply
to survive day to day, a decision encouraged by their partners. A strong theme was the
reluctance of men to acknowledge any kind of problem.
He was sort of in denial and he would say, ‘Just get over it, just get on with it, don’t
talk about it’ ... So it got to the point where I would just clam up ...I was tired all the
time, I would come home from work and there would be tension and then he would
just announce, ‘I’m going to bed’ and he would go and then I would feel more
relaxed ... So I felt like we were growing apart. (Caitlyn)
Ultimately, however, this lack of attention damaged relationships.
[You think you will] deal with the emotional side later. Well the later didn’t happen
for a long time and we were actually, at one point, beginning to get a bit panicky,
saying, ‘Well these chemical pathways, are they permanent chemical pathways?
Because we’re tired of being fucked up, let’s just get back some normality’.
Well my husband said that the fire just didn’t affect him. I don’t think that’s true.
Why not?
Because we’re getting divorced. I don’t see how any human being could have that
experience and be unaffected, emotionally unaffected, by it. He just said, ‘I was fine,
I just got on with it’ ... I think that he’s just completely shut down. (Natasha)
While the sense of not coping at all did not allow for sensitivity to others’ needs, a lack of
routine added to the strain. Some looked outside the relationship for emotional support or
for diversion from reality through flirtations and affairs both real and on the internet. It
was simpler to seek emotional support and sympathy from new people, particularly people
who did not have the weight of their own struggles with an experience of Black Saturday.
By that night I was convinced there was an affair happening and I was totally
devastated ... He said later on, ‘We weren’t getting along and she’s just so easy to
talk to’. (Caitlyn)
He was incredibly distant and unresponsive the whole time. He began to
communicate with a woman on line during this time, and proceeded to have an
affair with her. (Miranda)
Natasha told of her husband’s interest in his virtual life on the computer. Conversations
were about the life events of people neither of them had ever met. Real life interactions
were neglected to attend to the internet. It emerged that his interest developed during the
period she was struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a direct result of the fires.
She concluded by saying, ‘He just let me go off, basically’.
Closer to divorce
Divorce rates, together with child abuse, increase after disasters, as noted by other disaster
researchers (Curtis, Miller, & Berry, 2000; Fothergill, 1998). Cohen and Cole’s study of
marriage, birth and divorce rates in all counties in South Carolina after Hurricane Hugo in
1989 showed all rates increased the following year in the 24 disaster-affected counties
compared to the 22 not affected.
A life-threatening stressor appeared to be the catalyst for some to take significant
and relatively quick action in their personal lives that altered their life course. For
some, natural disaster may have hastened a transition they were already moving
toward, but at a slower pace. For others, natural disaster may have led to a
transition that might not have occurred if not for the disaster. (Cohan & Cole, 2002,
p. 21)
Chasms widened between couples as they re-evaluated their priorities in the light of their
near-death experience. The sense of mortality and their ‘new reality of danger and
randomness’ (Cohan & Cole, 2002, p. 21) inspired survivors to take action in order to find
meaning or establish some sense of control. In this research, for some women, relationships
had broken down, and others wondered about the point of staying together. The holiday
that families could access through the Bushfire fund allowed for reflection, and some spoke
of this as a critical time for deciding about the future. Three women described the
forthcoming holiday almost as a light at the end of the tunnel, but when it actually
happened, their partners’ behaviour confirmed ongoing problems and for many, was the
time for decisions about future family life.
It was supposed to be the biggest holiday we ever had, and pretty much the moment
we landed ... he just started flipping, doing strange things ... He kept getting really
cranky with [our son] ... He was raging, hassling him, pushing him, yelling at him.
It probably would have gone on forever the ways it was. [And at another stage] I
think that finished us, but we were going to break up one day or another. I think the
fires made us so tired and angry at each other. We couldn’t think straight and just
got really angry and that finished it. (Louise)
The women starkly portrayed the terror and exhaustion of Black Saturday, overlaid as it was
with all the complexity and fragility of human relationships. In the wake of the fires, both
partners and no doubt, children too tried to deal with the unimaginable burden of what
they remembered. Their words reveal what is often forgotten that it was not just men
who experienced Black Saturday. Women and children were there too and their right to
safety is paramount.
In this chapter, the circumstances and pressures are confronted, not to excuse the men’s
violence but instead to expose and address the link between natural disaster and domestic
violence. Previous traumas re-emerged and survivors tried to regain their sense of self in
whatever ways they could. Individual recovery was compromised by the unrelenting
physical, mental and emotional demands of re-establishing lives. In describing their own
responses to the disaster and that of their partners, the women spoke of abuse of alcohol
and drugs and suicidal thoughts. They spoke of changed behaviours in their partners mood
swings, suicide ideation and, above all, denial of any problem. Amongst the great toll of the
fire, there was a mass loss of security and selfhood. What had been certain was no longer
so. People were on ‘short fuses’ and stress meant the care normally taken to not offend was
The next chapter examines relationship violence experienced by the women in the post-
Black Saturday context.
5: Violence against women after disaster
A critical first step in filling the research gap on violence against women after disaster is our
willingness to hear women when they speak of violence against them. Instead, the notion of
domestic violence after disaster can evoke hostility towards those who speak of it.
Researching the phenomenon is met with resistance because disasters create a different
context for domestic violence. Suddenly, the concept of community is brought to the fore as
a spotlight is shone on disaster-affected regions from media, government, and the health
and community sector. The attention of the whole country is momentarily focused on
previously anonymous communities. There is a thirst for stories of courage and resilience as
mainstream media attention remains on the great national ethos, the indomitable human
spirit and the kindness of others. Reports of domestic violence or sexual assault are refuted
either subtly or explicitly as evidenced by the denial of rapes of women in the Louisiana
Superdome and elsewhere after Hurricane Katrina (Seager, 2006). Austin concluded that
‘the real-number increase in sexual assaults [after Hurricane Katrina] corresponds to a 95%
per capita increase in reported cases ’ (Austin, 2008, p. 1). Enarson (2012), too, stated the
violence there was real and explained that anti-social behaviour is minimised in disaster
analysis. After disaster, it seems, everyone must pull together and accounts of violence
against women and children must remain un-named. After interviews with 47 residents of
two rural communities in British Columbia, Canada, Cox and Perry (2011) conclude:
The dominant discourse of recovery tended to reinstate the status quo and prescribe
a preferred version of recovery in which suffering was privatized and individualized
and positioned as something to be managed effectively and moved beyond as
quickly as possible. A failure or inability to conform to this construction was
construed as a character flaw or pathology. (Cox & Perry, 2011, p. 401)
This chapter begins with a summary of the findings from this research of increased domestic
violence after Black Saturday, and examines the absence of reliable officially-recorded
quantitative data a finding in its own right. It then teases out the ways in which disaster
unmasks existing domestic violence and may escalate both women’s vulnerability and men’s
violence. Reflecting on the dominant discourse of recovery in the aftermath of Black
Saturday, it was one that, disturbingly, tended to reveal a culture of denial, despite 17
women’s accounts of their experiences of violence. A range of explanations for what
happened in relation to domestic violence after Black Saturday are then identified drawn
from empirical findings from the field together with the research literature. The central line
of inquiry here is to explore the relationship between domestic violence and disaster.
Findings of increased violence against women after Black Saturday
As noted in Chapter 1, most of the 30 women interviewed spoke of increased violence
within relationships they knew about, and 17 women spoke of their experience of violence
from partners since the fires 15 in their own relationship, one in regard to a close sister’s
relationship, and another concerning her daughter’s relationship. (See Appendix 5 for
summary details.) All except one woman stated they were frightened of their partner. For
nine women, this was a new and disturbing trend, and seven of these described previously
stable relationships. For a further eight women who had experienced some level of violence
before the fires sometimes many years earlier or as a once only occurrence the
violence sharply escalated in the aftermath of the Black Saturday bushfires. (Only one
woman reported a similar level