Did peace make a difference to domestic violence?

Last year, an incident of domestic violence was reported to the PSNI around every 18 minutes each day in Northern Ireland. In 1992, a previous study on domestic violence in Northern Ireland, led by Professor Monica McWilliams and Joan McKiernan highlighted the serious consequences of domestic violence for women and children during the Troubles particularly given the availability of guns at that time. It also showed how the conflict limited access to police thereby increasing the power and control of perpetrators affiliated to paramilitary groups. 25 years later, Professor McWilliams and Dr. Jessica Doyle (Ulster University) repeated the study to see what had changed and what difference the peace process had made. With support from Women’s Aid Federation Northern Ireland, 119 women victim/survivors of domestic violence were involved; 56 women in 1992 and 63 in 2016.

Peace has made a huge difference for these victims

Far fewer women in 2016 reported that their partner used a gun during a domestic violence incident than in 1992, a finding which suggests that the decommissioning of weapons also had implications for victims of domestic violence. Access to policing has greatly improved, particularly for those participants from Nationalist communities. The police reported that they were better able to respond to calls as the likelihood of ambush had decreased and they were now able to prioritise domestic violence, which was not the case in 1992. Two of every three women found the police ‘helpful’ in 2016, compared to only one in every four in 1992. One such example is the following: “The police] were really on top of things. [Giving a statement] even wasn’t daunting; you felt at ease because you were with people that you trusted. You felt safe with them.”

Lack of new legislation is failing victims of domestic violence in Northern Ireland

However, participants were concerned that psychological violence is not being responded to in the same way by the police: “Unless he [perpetrator] draws blood, nothing [from the police] is going to happen”. Participants felt that the failure to take psychological violence seriously, both by service responders and in legislation was failing them: “It’s what failed me, having no law to address the mental (psychological) abuse. He was smart and never physically put a hand to me. But I may not have been bruised but I am. Mental abuse…it goes deep, it’s hard and it’s in your brain all the time.” Legislation which would introduce an offence of coercive control and incorporate the psychological and economic elements of domestic violence, already introduced in England, Scotland and Wales has been delayed in Northern Ireland. The absence of political decision making in government means that Northern Ireland is falling behind in the laws and policies that have made a crucial difference to women’s lives in the UK and Europe.

Serious and long-term impacts of domestic violence for victims and their children

In general, the impact of domestic violence was very serious. Almost one in every two women who participated in the study reported having been raped by their partner, three in every four reported suffering from depression and one in every four had attempted to end their lives as a result of domestic violence: “I couldn’t take his behaviour, all that shouting, calling me names, keeping people away from me…I was in a bad way – I know it was three times or four times I took overdoses.”

The impact on children was also very serious, with over one third of women reporting that their partner had physically, psychologically and/or sexually abused their children. They also reported how witnessing domestic violence had an adverse impact on their children even long after the relationship had ended.

GPs and Social Workers Need To Respond Better

In contrast to the police, little improvement was seen in general practitioner (GP) and social worker responses. The study shows that GPs training on domestic violence needs to change so that doctors can better identify the problems and be able to discuss the concerns in order to make appropriate referrals: “I said a few times that there were problems in my marriage. [My GP] knew for sure and he couldn’t wait to get me out of the room. Instead of me feeling comfortable to talk, he was uncomfortable.” An opportunity for early intervention is being missed given that three out of four women had visited their GP as a result of the abuse.

Social workers focus on child protection meant that most women in the study felt very vulnerable when dealing with social workers despite being the non-abusive partner and parent. Women reported feeling more supported when they, as the mother of the child, were offered help to deal with the situation. Mothers were also concerned about social workers pushing contact between their children and partners who had a track record of abuse. Resource constraints and the issue of child contact with the abusive partner need to be addressed more widely by all of the agencies (including those within the judicial system) as well as through policy changes.

The full research report is available here…

Post by Jessica Doyle and Monica McWilliams

This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.