Why men’s violence against women skyrockets after natural disaster

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Carmen Hawker

The Global Women's Project has been working in Nepal to address the needs of women post-disaster.

The Global Women's Project has been working in Nepal to address the needs of women post-disaster. Photo: Global Women's Project

I'm often asked what I see as being the biggest issue facing women. I find it impossible to look past the egregious, pervasive and all too preventable violence that women face every day and in every country. It can be triggered or exacerbated by a disaster of some kind, like the earthquakes in Nepal earlier this year, but it is regrettably common to the everyday lived experience of women worldwide.

We can debate semantics but, regardless of what you call it, 'gender-based violence', 'violence against women' or, what I believe to be the most accurate description, 'men's violence against women' socially isolates women and predisposes them to inequality, discrimination, homelessness, poverty and further violence. It prevents them from accessing their full human rights.

Men's violence against women covers a range of acts including subordination, exploitation, disempowerment and deprivation, assault and rape. This Wednesday, the 25th of November, is International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and marks the beginning of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence. This is a time to galvanise action to end men's violence against women around the world.

Gender inequality is both a cause and a consequence of men's violence and it prevents entire communities from developing and thriving.

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I see evidence of this every day in my work for The Global Women's Project in Nepal and Cambodia, and also in Australia and globally. We know that 1 in 3 women over the age of 15 experience violence at some point in their lifetime and 1 in 5 women will experience sexual violence. The reality is that in some countries women are more likely to be raped than to learn how to read. This is outrageous and should offend each and every one of us to our core.

Given its prevalence, it seems hardly surprising that women's risk of experiencing men's violence skyrockets following a natural disaster and indeed has become a characteristic of the chaotic post-disaster period.

Why?

Leading social researchers in the field of gender and disaster, Dr Debra Parkinson and Dr Claire Zara, found displacement, stress and trauma following a disaster can create an increased risk of gender-based violence and sexual assault. According to their research, the grief and loss caused by disaster, coupled with the financial and bureaucratic demands of the recovery and reconstruction phase are partially responsible for the increase. The community spaces and ties that would have normally provided a semblance of stability and safety are disrupted and dismantled, and women bear the brunt of that. The increased contact between family members — often in cramped and makeshift accommodation — can also increase tension and the likelihood of violent behaviour.

Yet women also experience the displacement, stress and trauma of natural disaster and we don't see violence perpetrated by women rise in the same manner. This is because these things are not causes of violence. They are contributing factors.

What causes men's violence against women is gender inequality, a hypermasculine need for power and control as well as rigid gender roles and the belief that they should exist. As such, existing gender stereotypes that are disrupted during disaster play a big part in the increase in men's violence against women after disaster.

Norms about women needing 'saving' and 'protection' and men's prescribed roles as 'protectors' and 'savers' creates a recipe for disaster given their inability to fulfil those roles during times of crisis and chaos. Violent behaviour is often a way of re-asserting their masculinity and resuming some semblance of power and control. When this violent behaviour coincides with widely held community attitudes that excuse men's violence against women, we can see up to a 400 per cent rise in women seeking refuge from a violent partner after disaster.

As in other parts of the world, Nepali women experience men's violence on a daily basis. Women from disadvantaged castes such as Dalit women, or women with disabilities, widows and those living in remote regions experience many further disadvantages that make them even more vulnerable to discrimination, poverty and violence and the impacts of natural disaster. Human traffickers also targeted thousands of women and children in the wake of the chaos in Nepal.

Following the Nepal earthquakes we have been, and continue to be, committed to providing a targeted response to meet the specific needs of women post-disaster and to addressing the disproportionate ways in which they are impacted by disaster.

As an organisation focused on supporting women to empower themselves, we are also passionate about not allowing this narrative of women's vulnerabilities overshadow their immense resilience and the important role they have to play in leading recovery and rebuilding efforts. When disasters strike we want to see women at the forefront of the response.

This is why we are on a mission to eliminate the poverty, discrimination and violence that is not only holding women back, but is holding us all back, and hope you will join us.

The Global Women's Project is an emerging Australian-based non-profit on a mission to see women equal, empowered, educated and employed. To mark International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and seven months since the Nepal quakes, they will be putting men's violence against women on the Disaster Agender alongside Women's Melbourne Network in front of a packed house at Bella Union, Melbourne. Click here for more details.