By Emma McArdle.

Domestic abuse: it’s an issue that is so common and quietly permitted in society that many people who are actually suffering don’t see it for what it is.

The prevalence of domestic abuse is staggering. (I use the term ‘domestic abuse’ instead of ‘domestic violence’ because the physical aspect of it, while awful, is only one part of a sufferer’s experience.)

The World Health Organisation estimates that 35 per cent of women globally have experienced physical or sexual violence. In a major survey in 2014, the European Union Fundamental Rights Agency found that 14 per cent of women in the Irish state have experienced physical violence by a partner; six per cent have experienced sexual violence by a partner; 12 per cent of respondents have experienced stalking, and 31 per cent have experienced psychological violence by a partner.

Women’s Aid points out that, of the 225 women who have been murdered in this state since 1996, at least 56 per cent were killed by their current or former partner, and 61 per cent were killed in their own homes. Sixteen children were murdered along with their mothers over the same period during an attack by the woman’s partner.

The Domestic Violence Act 2018, recently passed in the Dáil, is a really good piece of legislation. There is now a new criminal offence of ‘coercive control’, referring to psychological abuse which causes fear. This is really important because it gets to the core of any abusive relationship.

Abuse is based on inequality

Many abusive relationships are not overtly violent: instead, the victim is controlled and dominated. Not being allowed control of money, constantly being put down, having your children turned against you, never being allowed to make a decision, being instructed to leave your job, dress a certain way, act a certain way, etc. These are all hallmarks of domestic abuse.

The essence of domestic abuse is inequality.

There is a research model called the Duluth Power and Control Model, which has concluded that men who abuse women have a sense of entitlement, a belief that they can get away with it, and a belief that their lives should take priority.

From a feminist theory point of view the primary explanation for the level of violence against women in society is the inequality of women in society.

That is not to say that an individual is not responsible for their actions, because they are. But the economic and social construct in which women are subordinated – the patriarchy, in other words – creates an environment which enables and facilitates abuse.

Historically societies have given greater wealth, status, influence and control to men. Some examples of female gender oppression across the world occur in access to education, land ownership, the salary gap, sex-selective abortions, female genital mutilation, child marriage, so-called honour killings, and more.

In the Irish context the Proclamation of 1916 is addressed to Irishmen and Irishwomen and it guaranteed equal rights and opportunities to all citizens. The Democratic Programme of the First Dáil is a very egalitarian text. But by 1937, we see anti-women clauses being inserted into the Irish Constitution, such as Article 41 which refers to a women’s place being in the home.

The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, inserted in 1983, denied access to abortion services and actually criminalised women. This injustice has finally been ended in part of this country through the victory of the Repeal campaign – and the North is next.

Victims left behind

Across this country the services for victims and survivors of domestic abuse are substandard. Statistics from Safe Ireland in the South and the Women’s Aid Federation in the North state that in the year of 2015 alone over 76,000 calls – that’s 208 calls per day – were made to domestic abuse support services.

Also in 2015, more than 2,500 women and nearly 3,000 children stayed in refuge accommodation. More than 5,000 women could not be accommodated in refuges because they were full.

In 2016 the Director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland, Orla O’Connor, stated that the collection and analysis of data on domestic and sexual violence was not adequate so we don’t really know the true scale of the issue at present.

While domestic abuse has an enormous personal impact on victims and their families it also has wide-reaching economic consequences. It results in costs to the health service, the courts, social services, An Garda Síochána, education settings and housing agencies.

Research estimates that the cost of domestic abuse is in the region of €555 per person per year across EU member states. In the Irish context, domestic abuse costs approximately €2.2 billion per year.

Advocacy groups estimate that over the course of the economic recession in the Irish state, public funding to the sector was slashed by a massive 31 per cent, almost one-third.

Historically the Irish state has lagged behind other European countries of similar population in the provision of refuge accommodation; for example, at one point Ireland had then 11 refuges compared with Norway’s 400.

There is some really good work being done across Ireland and it is much more than just the provision of emergency accommodation. There are school programmes, personal development and counselling for victims and, very interestingly, through perpetrator programmes. Insights from these programmes have provided a greater understanding of the cultivation of the abusive relationship.

Perpetrator programmes are useful because they are effective in eventually changing the abusive behaviour of participants, and because they provide insights that help to develop preventative measures. They focus on changing the behaviour of the person in the wrong, instead of that of the victim.

However, as they are court-mandated the participants are generally only those who and already visible to gardaí – the vast majority of domestic abuse cases never get near court.

I finish with another statistic: in 2016 there were 16 domestic homicides in this state. That’s the same number of people who were killed in the Hutch Kinahan gangland feud – but where did the media focus its attention?

Emma McArdle is a Sinn Féin activist and political advisor. Follow her on Twitter @Eire_Libre.

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