Climate change and its unequal impact on women

Sydney climate protest on January 10.

While some do not want to discuss the cause of Australia’s horrendous bushfires — runaway climate change — even fewer want to talk about how catastrophic fires are disproportionately affecting women and how it should be tackled.

Data from the 2009 Victorian Black Saturday fires shows that men are more likely to die during bushfires or other natural disasters. Men made up the majority of fatalities in bushfires and floods from 1998 to 2007. This is likely due to more men being involved in front-line emergency service roles and other high-risk activities.

Studies have found that, in general, women would rather evacuate when faced with a catastrophic fire compared with men who more often elect to stay and fight. The socialised notion of what a “strong” man should do is still deeply ingrained. Conversely, evacuating is largely still seen as “weak” or “cowardly”.

Some men feel they must stay to support others fighting the fires. Consequently, men are three times more likely to die in bushfires compared with women. Women are socialised to be more risk-averse than men.

About 95% of Australian firefighters are male, although efforts are being made to attract more women. The Victorian Metropolitan Fire Brigade employs 81 women and nearly 2000 men. The Country Fire Authority includes 5000 female volunteers and 30,000 males.

Until Black Saturday, the statistics showed that the gap between male and female deaths in bushfires was closing and, in two fires, had reversed.

While there has been some coverage of women fighting fires — including 19-year-old India MacDonell in Goongerah in Victoria and Robynne Murphy, a volunteer firefighter from Nelligen in NSW, the establishment media is mostly depicting men in uniforms saving the day.

The notion of “heroic” men and “helpful” women and stereotypical assumptions about the roles they play, such as protector and protected, are pervasive and reinforced by the establishment media.

While women still comprise less than a quarter of all rural fire service personnel, they still play critical organising roles — even if behind the scenes.

Typically, after the disaster has passed, women and men also display different coping mechanisms.


Research from the Black Saturday bushfires noted that men were more inclined to use alcohol and engage in risk-taking behaviour whereas women were more likely to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and general anxiety.

After that disaster, however, the media portrayed “heroic” men who may be suffering from PTSD, not the women who were largely the caregivers both during and after the disaster.

Research shows there tends to be an increase in violence against women in post-disaster periods. Following Hurricane Katrina in the United States there was a four-fold increase in partner violence. One study described a 98% increase in domestic violence. After the 2010 Canterbury earthquake in New Zealand police reported a 53% increase in domestic violence incidents. 

There has been little research in Australia into the gendered impacts of natural disasters, and post-disaster increases in violence against women.

The way he tells it…’ Relationships after Black Saturday noted an increase in the number and severity of domestic and family violence after the 2009 fires.

It said that women already living with an abusive partner may suffer more abuse because their support structures — family and friends — were absent. The experience of residents in Marysville, Victoria demonstrated this: the longer residents were displaced from their homes, the less likely they were to return and the more likely they were compelled to depend on their abuser. Women with a disability, or women with language barriers, often have to rely on partners to access support services.

While the data is not reliable, it seems that women are often reluctant to report violence after disasters. After the Black Saturday bushfires, women not only struggled with their own trauma, they also worried about their vulnerable partners.

The increase in domestic and family violence can be exacerbated by the trauma of living through such events, as well as the financial uncertainly and destruction of goals and dreams. It is believed that these pressures tend to amplify existing family violence, not cause new instances of the crime.

Nevertheless, researchers emphasise that high levels of stress should cannot be an excuse to avoid justice. It is not stress, per se, that leads a perpetrator to domestic and family violence but rather the person’s sense of losing control over their life.

Debra Parkinson from the Monash University Accident Research Centre found an even bigger risk of domestic violence in rural areas as climate change-related disasters impact on livelihoods.

Some women face added impediments to seeking assistance. For example, incidences of domestic violence will be very different for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) women compared with others because there are fewer specialised services for ATSI women and after a natural disaster they will be more stretched.

Women from different cultural and language groups living in rural communities also face barriers securing help because of the lack of service providers and, where they exist, the lack of specialist knowledge and language.

Women with disabilities in isolated regional and remote locations can experience a double disadvantage because of limited access to transportation and the specialist services they require.

More vulnerable

Women are less prepared for, and protected from, natural disasters as a result of their disadvantaged socio-economic position. Women earn less than men and are more likely to be unemployed or under employed.

This means that women who live in regions more exposed to climate-change disasters will not have as much access to protection such as air conditioners, heating, storm windows, solar panels and insulation.

Experts agree that disasters also exacerbate disadvantage. Single parents — overwhelmingly women — may find it more difficult to access adequate financial assistance.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has promised relief to those on the front lines. However many thousands of men and women may not fit the narrow bill of who constitutes the needy, even though they may have been without income for weeks. Many who are now destitute may be under-insured, or may not have been able to afford insurance in the first place.

Post-disaster economic recovery often concentrates emergency funding to male-dominated areas of employment, such as construction, debris removal and landscaping. Women, who are overwhelmingly employed in low-wage jobs such as tourism, child-care, home health or temporary office workers, will not be on the receiving end of this relief aid.

Aid money frequently goes to companies outside the disaster area. For example, after the 2013 Blue Mountains fire in NSW, residents were excluded from the consultation and recovery planning; a lot of disaster relief was not directed to the local community.

Research found that after Hurricane Katrina, the more insistent women were with insurance officials, architects and contractors the more they were labelled “difficult”.

Despite the structural inequalities, women are forceful drivers of change. As we prepare for more climate change-related disasters this long summer we need do what we can to force governments to compensate women for the huge role they are playing, on and off the front-lines.

[Mary Merkenich is a climate and union activist based in Melbourne.]

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