Stark figures on domestic abuse

The statisics on domestic abuse in Ireland are often worrying, and the government needs to do more to ensure victims are protected. By Justin Frewen.

“… one in five Irish women who have ever been in a relationship experience physical, emotional, financial or sexual abuse.” (Margaret Martin, Director Women’s Aid)

The recent launch of the annual statistics report for 2010 by Women’s Aid on domestic violence serves once more to highlight the continuing abuse inflicted on so many women in Ireland by their partners.

The prevalence of domestic abuse has been well documented both internationally and in Ireland. Research undertaken by Women's Aid in Ireland found that 95% of young women and 84% of young men claimed to know someone who had experienced abuse. This abuse ranged from violence and harassment to being followed, forced to have sex or being struck by a boyfriend. In most instances, the victims were women. Shockingly, 1 in 4 young women knew someone who had been forced to have sex.

These Irish figures were recently corroborated by studies in England which showed that many young girls experience a significant level of abuse, verbal intimidation and misogyny in their schools. According to the UK Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, the threat of sexual assault, stalking and domestic abuse is greatest for women between the ages of 16 and 19. As Starmer warns, this situation risks creating a “whole new generation of domestic violence.”

When domestic violence occurs, the situation is often made worse for the victims by a feeling of having to face this abuse alone, as they are unaware as to where they might get help. This sense of isolation can be further aggravated by jeering partners who mock them by telling them that there is no point their confiding in anyone, as they would not be believed anyway. According to Women’s Aid, one third of women never relate their experiences to anyone and try to survive – as well as protecting their children in many instances - as best they can on their own.

“Living outside the Law”

Women’s Aid’s statistics for 2010 showed that 13% of callers had suffered abuse at the hands of their current non-married partners. This is a serious concern, given the current legal situation, as a large number of these women will not be able to access Domestic Violence Orders if, for example, they have never lived with their partner, even if they have a child in common. A further 10% had been subjected to abuse from a former non-married partner and once again many of these women might find themselves ineligible for protection under the Domestic Violence Act 1996.

For many women, the termination of their relationship is no deterrent to their abuser. Roughly one fifth of women continue to suffer abuse, be stalked and harassed by their ex-partner. In many instances, women are hounded by their former partners who frequently avail of mobile phones to send them explicit texts and calls threatening to assault or even murder them. Social networking sites are also being used to an ever greater extent in a similar manner.

Many women can also find themselves increasing the risk of further violence and abuse when they turn to the legal system for protection. If the woman’s application for a Safety and Protection Order is refused, she may well find herself placed at increased risk of abuse from her abusive partner. Even when they are granted, these orders might result in aggravating the risk if the abuser decides to ignore the order or because he has been infuriated by the action. Indeed, even when an order is granted, the woman might have to continue living with the abuser.

In effect, Ireland has failed to live up to the guidelines issued by the UN on domestic legislation, through its failure to provide adequate protection for the victims of domestic abuse resulting from an intimate relationship, irrespective of their particular relationship and/or marital status.

Despite commitments on the part of the previous Minister for Justice, Dermot Ahern, to improve the legislation the only pre-election improvement was the extension of eligibility to same sex civil partners, now treated as spouses. The Programme for the current Government does include a commitment to “introduce consolidated and reformed domestic violence legislation to address all aspects of domestic violence, threatened violence and intimidation in a manner that provides protection to victims”. In this respect, the Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill tabled by Minister Alan Shatter, which has a provision to extend the Domestic Violence Act 1996 to give legal protection - access to protective orders - to women with a child in common with their abuser who do not meet the cohabitation requirements, is a step in the right direction.

Early Signs

“Over 51% of the 166 women murdered in the Republic were killed by their partner or ex-partner. More chilling data from resolved homicide cases show that of the 39 women aged between 18 and 25 years who were killed since 1996, 53% were murdered by a boyfriend or former boyfriend.” (Margaret Martin)

In order to prevent such horrific outcomes, it is critical that the initial warning signs of domestic violence are recognised and tackled. As the 2005 National Crime Council report – Domestic Abuse of Women and Men – revealed, in almost two-thirds of reviewed cases, abuse had commenced before the relationship was two years old. A national survey on domestic violence showed that nearly 60% of the victims of severe abuse in intimate relationships had experienced it for the first time before they were 25.

Many older women who have suffered from domestic violence reported that there were early warning signs at the start of their relationships but that they were just put down – both by herself and friends – as emanating from their partner just being a bit too much into her. In order to help younger women who are at risk identify these warning signs and take appropriate preventative actions, Women’s Aid launched the 2in2u National Public Awareness Campaign on Valentine’s Day this year.

This groundbreaking campaign, made possible by funding received through Cosc (the National Office for the Prevention of Domestic, Sexual and Gender Based Violence) and supported by the Irish actress Charlene McKenna, aims at highlighting the issue of violence and abuse many young women experience in their dating relationships. This campaign was made possible by funding through Cosc.

In addition to highlighting how a controlling boyfriend's attention can often be overwhelming at the early stages of a relationship and how it feels to be a young woman experiencing such behaviour, the 2in2u campaign is intended to help overcome the common view that abuse is the preserve of older and more established relationships, where women may have been married or living with their partner for a considerable period of time or with whom they might also have had children.

The 2in2u website also has a ‘relationship health check’ quiz that can help provide certain indicators as to the potential risk of domestic violence faced by women in relationships. Should a young woman feel uncomfortable or concerned about any aspect of her relationship with her boyfriend, she can call the Women's Aid National Freephone Helpline (1800 341 900) or hopefully will feel encouraged to confide in someone she trusts.

For further information, see