Second Opinion: Campaigns to end violence against women aren’t working

More than 1 in 4 Irish women surveyed had been subjected to physical or sexual abuse by a partner

It does not seem to matter how many campaigns are organised against domestic violence, it just keeps on happening. Safe Ireland recently released its 2014 annual report. Domestic violence services answered 48,888 helpline calls, and nearly 10,000 women and 3,068 children were provided with direct specialist support.

Services were unable to meet 4,831 requests from women for safe accommodation. Although shocking, these figures pale into insignificance when compared with data for Ireland in Violence against women: an EU-wide survey published by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights.

A total of 1,567 Irish women aged between 18 and 74 were interviewed in 2014 on many aspects of violence. Nearly a third had experienced psychological violence that included husbands or partners insisting on knowing their whereabouts at all times; being humiliated and belittled in public and in private; and having no access to money. More than one in four had been subjected to either physical or sexual abuse by current or previous partners including kicking, beating with fists or hard objects, and rape.

Random selection

As the women were randomly selected for the survey, it can be extrapolated from the sample that at least half a million women living in Ireland have been subjected to violence by a current or previous partner.


The huge numbers of women reporting violent experiences mean that “violence against women cannot be seen as a marginal issue that touches only on some women’s lives” and “must be acknowledged as a widespread form of human rights abuse”.

The health consequences of domestic violence are horrendous. Participants in the survey reported bruising, burns and fractures, and often submitted to unwanted sexual intercourse because of fear of what might happen unless they “consented”. Mental health consequences included depression, anxiety, panic attacks and insomnia.

The National Office for the Prevention of Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based violence (Cosc) and the Department of Justice and Equality recently published the Second National Strategy on Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence 2016-2021. It "aims to create a safer Ireland". Is this even possible?

The first strategy which operated from 2010 to 2014 did not result in fewer women using domestic or sexual violence services. Central Statistics Office (CSO) figures show that sexual offences have increased by 11 per cent from 2,014 in 2011 to 2,262 in 2015.

There are no crime statistics for domestic violence because these assaults are still lumped in with all other assaults. A spokesperson for the CSO said this “may change in the near future”. Separate domestic violence figures should be available by the “first quarter” of 2016.

The new strategy is a mere six pages of text. However, it is accompanied by a detailed action plan which has 57 actions to be achieved over the next five years, relating to awareness-raising; school programmes; training of frontline workers; provision of services to victims; and holding perpetrators to account.

The Domestic Violence Bill (2015), due to be enacted early this year, will make it easier for women to get safety orders, interim barring orders, barring orders and protection orders. Victims will be able to give evidence by televisual link reducing the risk of intimidation. Applicants for orders can be spouses, partners or parents.

The Child and Family Agency or the HSE can apply for court orders if there are reasonable grounds for believing that a person would be too afraid to apply for an order on her or his own behalf.

Awareness campaign

The least useful action in the strategy is the planned six-year awareness-raising campaign costing €950,000 which aims “to bring about a change in long-established societal behaviours and attitudes, and to activate bystanders with the aim of reducing the incidence of offending”. No campaign, no matter how well thought out, can achieve this kind of behaviour change.

Misogynistic attitudes to women are too entrenched and bystanders too fearful to be influenced by a media campaign. Instead, violence against women and domestic violence must be seen as violations of human rights and not, as is often the case, temporary relationship difficulties.

The Irish State is responsible for upholding and vindicating these rights. Victims should not have to rely on underfunded voluntary organisations. Those implementing the strategy should spend the campaign budget on training for frontline workers and services for women on the receiving end, including speedier free legal aid.

All frontline workers need to recognise domestic violence and all forms of violence against women as human rights violations, so that they can respond appropriately. Otherwise, Safe Ireland, Cosc and the Department of Justice and Equality will be back launching a third strategy and wondering why their best efforts are not working. Dr Jacky Jones is a former HSE regional manager of health promotion and a member of the Healthy Ireland Council.