Paula Bradshaw: We need to talk about domestic violence

Alliance Party MLA, Paula Bradshaw writes for Slugger for the issue of domestic violence

We need to talk about domestic violence. Specifically, we need to recognise that the failure to restore the Executive and Assembly is holding up efforts to protect women (and men) from domestic abuse, stalking, and coercive control. Judith Gillespie’s timely contribution to the debate reminds us that – regardless of the esteem in which our devolved institutions are held – they remain the forum to deliver these important advances for our citizens.

Without seeking to diminish the horrendous impact domestic violence in all its forms has on other groups in society, we must face the fact that it remains a problem primarily experienced by women, and is a very real outworking of the everyday sexism in our society. We know that it remains largely hidden and underreported; some estimates suggest that it can take up to 35 incidents before a victim develops the courage to seek help. Just how much pain and suffering is taking place behind closed doors?

Whilst the issues are not new, awareness is growing and it is thanks to the tireless campaigning of groups across society that we are starting to make progress. As it currently stands, we are awaiting three pieces of legislation to deal with stalking, coercive control, and disclosure of previous domestic violence incidents to partners.

We currently have no specific laws governing harassment, despite a ten-fold increase in recent years. Technology has facilitated new forms of harassment and with the rise of location aware services stalkers have access to their victims in ways previous protections could not foresee and cannot meaningfully protect against. With respect to coercive control, there is no legislative protection to tackle the emotional and psychological abuse meted out to partners, spouses, or family members by abusers.

A crucial protection for people in Northern Ireland is the extension here of “Clare’s law”, which gives individuals the right to ask police whether their partner may pose a risk to them. Being able to identify abusers gives them one less place to hide and gives potential victims an important tool in defending themselves against potential attack.

It’s also worth noting that this type of abuse is blind to class and ethnicity, it happens throughout our society. The PSNI respond to a call every 20 minutes of abuse in the home and domestic abuse crimes make up 13% of all crime in Northern Ireland. We know from our places of work, our friendship circles, and our constituency services that it happens. We have legislation ready to give victims better protection. The question I have is, do we have the political will to deliver them?