Today is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. In the first of two guest blogs marking the Day, Margaret Martin, Director of Women’s Aid, highlights the prevalence of domestic and sexual violence against women in Ireland and how we, as a nation, are failing women who remain outside the law.
Think of someone being handcuffed, burnt with cigarettes, kicked in the head and stomach, clothing tied over their head and beaten; being choked until unconscious, threatened with firearms, a gun held to the head; being tied up and locked in a room for days without food. What picture emerges? More than likely: a man, a political prisoner, in some distant land.
But these abuses happened here in Ireland; not to political prisoners but to women, often prisoners in their own homes, women living with an abusive partner.
They are a small sample of the cruel and inhuman treatment disclosed to Women’s Aid National Freephone Helpline in recent years.
One of the most common forms of violence against women internationally is domestic violence. What makes domestic violence unique is the intimate relationship that exists between the abuser and abused.
The majority of abuse disclosed to the Women’s Aid National Freephone Helpline in 2014 was perpetrated by a current male intimate partner. Within such an intimate relationship, the abusive partner has constant access to his victim, as well as a safe private space in which to carry out the abuse. The nature of the relationship also means that he has detailed knowledge about the most effective ways to abuse his victim.
Contrary to myth, domestic violence is not a series of isolated incidents, unconnected and disparate, related to alcohol, anger or loss of control. Rather, domestic violence is intentional and is a relentless pattern of abusive behaviours designed to instil fear in order to maintain power and control.
Often the abuse begins in small ways, gradually becoming more severe until the woman finds herself living in fear, unable to sleep, terrified to leave, a prisoner in her own home. In many cases severe abuse becomes unnecessary over time as the threat of the abuse, and the fear that it instils, becomes enough to control her.
Women’s Aid has worked to provide hope and support to women experiencing abuse at the hands of a partner, and to lobby for justice and social change, since 1974. While opportunities have opened up to women across many areas of society since then, the abuse they experience remains much the same and there is, unfortunately, still a great deal of work for Women’s Aid to do.
The magnitude of the problem of domestic violence has been illustrated again and again. Particularly important in this respect was the major study carried out by the European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) in recent years. This was a transnational project that investigated women’s experiences of domestic abuse throughout the EU, by carrying out a staggering 42,000 face-to-face interviews in all.
The FRA study used unambiguous numbers to illuminate the story that Women’s Aid tells. Intimate partner violence is the daily reality for vast numbers of women in Ireland. It is happening to every type of woman, from every background, and every upbringing. Each of us probably knows at least one woman who has had to endure this form of suffering.
The Irish data from the FRA study showed that almost one in every three Irish women had experienced at least one incidence of psychological abuse by a partner since the age of 15. In real numbers, this makes up just short of half a million women (470,157). The psychological abuse of women in Ireland, reported by the study, included being locked inside their homes, restricted in their access to their cars, isolated from friends and family, threatened, belittled and insulted. Women often tell us at Women’s Aid that it is this form of abuse that can be the most difficult to talk about, and that takes the longest to heal.
One in every 16 women (90,000, six per cent of those surveyed) reported an incidence of sexual violence by a partner. Women’s descriptions of sexual abuse included the partner forcing her or attempting to force her into sexual intercourse by holding her down or hurting her in some way, or forcing her to take part in other forms of sexual activity when she did not want to, or was unable to refuse.
One in every seven women experienced physical violence at the hands of a partner. This abuse involved pushing, shoving, slapping, being beaten with fists or hard objects, being, burned, stabbed, choked and shot at. Over 50 per cent of women surveyed who reported experiencing physical violence were left with bruises or scratches. Fifteen per cent had wounds, sprains and burns. Fourteen per cent had fractures, broken bones and broken teeth. Four per cent were inflicted with internal injuries. Three per cent suffered from concussion or brain injury. Four women in the study reported a miscarriage as a result of the most serious incident of physical violence.
The impacts on women of being subjected to these types of abuse are devastating and unquantifiable. Women’s health and lives are being put at risk every day as long as they are being subjected to this terror in their own homes. These are women you know, from all walks of life. None of them deserves what has happened to them. All of them need support.
This abuse is supported and compounded by our victim-blaming culture, which minimises and even tacitly condones the abuse of women. They contribute to a culture of silence and shame, and prevent women from being able to come forward unashamedly and seek help. This often means that it is the woman who feels ashamed, not the perpetrator.
While we all have a responsibility to recognise and respond to victims of domestic violence, those among us who are in positions of power are able to do more. We welcome the Government’s signing up to the Istanbul Convention. We must now ratify it. It must not be a box-ticking exercise but an opportunity for real system change and to tackle domestic and sexual violence at the core.
Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald recently published the heads of a new Domestic Violence Bill and there is much in it to be welcomed. However, we would like to see this Bill going even further. We also feel that there is a missed opportunity to address a key gap in legal protection for younger victims of domestic violence with this Bill. Many young women experiencing abuse in dating relationships cannot avail of any legal protection under the Domestic Violence Act, current or proposed, because they have not lived together.
Women’s Aid frontline services hear about these experiences every day. Research has shown that, while young women can be at even higher risk of abuse in a relationship than their older counterparts, there is low recognition of controlling and coercive relationship behaviour among young women. We know that in a national survey on domestic abuse in Ireland, almost 60 per cent of those who had experienced severe abuse in intimate relationships first experienced it when they were under the age of 25.
We must protect safe spaces where women can share their stories. We must see perpetrators’ attempts to control and manipulate for what they really are and ensure they are held accountable. As human rights defenders, we must give each other the opportunity and space, the voice and the courage, to stand together and to end violence against women.
The Women’s Aid ‘One in Five Women’ campaign launches today at a conference on Digital Abuse of Women at Wood Quay, Dublin. The campaign runs from today to 10th December 2015 with over 100 local groups taking action against violence against women. Further information is available at: www.womensaid.ie/16days.