‘16 Days of Action’ highlights levels of violence against women in Ireland

The end of the ’16 Days of Action’ Campaign organised to highlight violence against women (VAW) was marked yesterday by another sad reminder of the reality, and wide-ranging consequences of VAW.

Yesterday, a jury in the Central Criminal Court found 56 year old Ann Burke of Main Street, Ballybrittas, guilty of the manslaughter of her husband.  During two days of harrowing evidence, Mrs Burke described in detail what Mr Patrick Gageby SC called “marital disharmony”. Mrs Burke alleged that her husband assaulted her on their wedding night in 1975 and that the “litany of abuse” continued throughout their 32-year marriage. She described her marriage as "rows, beatings, lots of clouts, swelled lips and black eyes".

Mrs Burke also alleged that her husband had thrown ash-trays at her, thrown his dinner on the floor, hit their dog with a shovel, poured boiling water over their cats and kicked her in the stomach while she was pregnant with her son.

Ann and Pat Burke's daughter Linda also gave evidence in the case, vouching that her mother’s testimony was accurate.  She said her earliest memory, when she was three or four, was seeing her father point a shotgun at her mother and threaten to "blow her head off".

Mrs Burke said that her husband threatened that if she did do anything to him, she would be "brought to the Dublin mountains and never heard of again".

In August 2007, after a series of protracted arguments, Mrs. Burke hit her husband over the head with a hammer as he slept, when Gardai arrived on the scene she confessed.  Mrs. Burke was found ‘not guilty’ of murder by reason of diminished responsibility. She will be sentenced for manslaughter in January.

Intermittently, tragic cases such as this highlight the damage that domestic violence wreaks on its victims, their families and wider society. Yet generally, this massive issue receives relatively little and inadequate attention. Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Dermot Ahern conceded earlier this year that “there is very little research on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence in Ireland. The research which had been done shows a consistent prevalence of this abuse, with very low levels of reporting”.

Actions such as the ’16 Days’ campaign are an attempt to combat this. ‘16 Days’ is an international campaign that started in 1991 which runs each year from 25 November (the United Nations Day Opposing Violence against Women) to Human Rights Day on 10 December. Since its launch, over 2000 groups in 154 countries have taken part. In Ireland last year, over 80 groups and individuals organised events around the country.  Among other things, the campaign aims to highlight and raise awareness of violence against women, lobby government and promote women’s leadership and safety.

The United Nations defines violence against women as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life”.  Therefore, violence against women is much more than physical attacks; it includes psychological bulling and financial abuse.

Violence against women is one of the few occurrences which transcends every cultural, political, socio-economic, ethnic, religious and educational boundary and it is extremely prevalent in modern Irish society.  Records indicate that one in five women has experienced domestic violence.  However, it is widely accepted that this figure under-represents the true extent of the problem. A study by Women’s Aid revealed that only one in five women who experienced domestic violence in Ireland ever contacted the Gardai.

According to a report by Amnesty International, violence against women in Ireland is not only widespread, but the government is not taking adequate measures to combat and redress this 'grave and systematic human rights abuse'.

Domestic violence legislation in Ireland is insufficient, offering no protection to certain groups of women whose situations to not meet strict eligibility criteria.

Legal remedies for women living with domestic violence are generally found under the Domestic Violence Act 1996. Under the Act, married women experiencing abuse can avail of full protection of the law. This is an innovative piece of legislation as it recognises the need to protect women from ongoing violence and abuse, as opposed to other legal remedies which are intended to address past violence and abuse. However, under the same legislation, women who are not married to their abusive partner have to satisfy stringent criteria, particularly in relation to cohabitation, in order to qualify for protection. For example, there are no legal provisions for women in dating relationships who may be abused, bullied or stalked.  Also, the law cannot protect a woman being abused by the father of her child who she is no longer living with.

In this regard, Ireland fails to comply with UN guidelines for domestic violence legislation, which state that legislation should apply at a minimum to individuals who are, or who have been, in an intimate relationship, including marital, non-marital, same-sex and non-cohabiting relationships.

These gaps in the law have serious consequences. Almost 800 women who called Women’s Aid last year were abused by former partners to whom they were not married.

As a result, a number of groups, including Women’s Aid, the Law Society, the Law Reform Commission, the Government Task Force on Violence against Women and Amnesty Ireland, have called for the Act to be amended in order to address this defect.

Women’s Aid director Margaret Martin has said that legislation needs to be changed to reflect 21st century life and called for the removal of all cohabiting requirements. She has further warned that until the law was changed, thousands of women will continue to live in fear.

16 Facts for 16 Days:*

  1. A survey conducted by Dublin's Rotunda Maternity Hospital found that in a sample of 400 pregnant women, one in eight had experienced abuse at the hands of their partner while pregnant.
  2. In a one-day survey on 4th November 2008, 263 women and 216 children were accommodated and/or received support from a domestic violence service; 239 helpline calls were received from women; 17 women and 15 children were admitted to refuge; 6 women could not be accommodated due to lack of space.
  3. On average, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) responds to a domestic incident every 23 minutes of every day.
  4. 25 per cent of all violent crimes reported involve a man assaulting his wife or partner.
  5. Almost one quarter (23.6 per cent) of perpetrators of sexual violence against women as adults are intimate partners or ex-partners.
  6. Almost three quarters of incidents of domestic violence (73 per cent) involve repeat offending, with over one in four victims (27 per cent) attacked three or more times.
  7. In 2003, 3 out of 4 women who were accommodated in refuge were accompanied by one or more children.
  8. Despite the introduction of the 1996 Domestic Violence Act, the conviction rate for domestic violence has dropped 16 per cent in 1997 to 6.5 per cent in 2002 according to Amnesty.
  9. International research shows that 25 per cent of women who experience domestic violence are physically assaulted for the first time during pregnancy.
  10. The estimated economic cost of domestic violence to the Irish economy is €2.2 billion per year. This is based on the Council of Europe figure that domestic violence costs each member state €555 per citizen annually in policing, health bills, lost productivity and court procedures.
  11. 49 per cent of women injured by their partner’s violence required medical treatment and 10 per cent required a hospital stay
  12. National research carried out in 1999 found that between 1 per cent and 6 per cent of domestic violence offenders in Ireland receive a prison sentence.
  13. According to the Council of Europe there should be a minimum of one refuge place (space to accommodate a woman and her children) per 10,000 people. Therefore there should be 446 family refuge places in Ireland. There are 143.
  14. The single biggest reason why women did not leave violent partners was having nowhere to go (88 per cent).
  15. In 2008, women could not be accommodated at refuge on more than 1,722 recorded occasions.
  16. Since 1996 there have been 159 women murdered in the Republic of Ireland. Of these women murdered 51 per cent were murdered by a partner or an ex-partner. A further 37 per cent were killed by someone they knew (e.g. brother, son, neighbour). In all of the resolved cases, 99% of perpetrators were male.
* For more information see Women's Aid or their '16 Days' Campaign Blog.