This week, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has issued a clear call to the Government to strengthen its response to domestic violence. Ireland is falling short of its obligations under international law to protect the human rights of women affected by domestic violence.
The committee strongly recommended that Ireland take all necessary steps to rectify this, including strengthening support services for victims and introducing a Domestic Violence Bill.
The year 2015 needs to be a turning point for women and children affected by domestic violence in Ireland. We must address the existing cracks in the legal system which put women and children at risk; and reverse recent statutory funding cuts that threaten our work to stop domestic violence.
Last week Women’s Aid launched our Impact Report for 2014 detailing more than 22,000 disclosures of emotional, physical, sexual and financial abuse against women and children in Ireland. We know these figures are only the tip of the iceberg but they give us some indication of the horrific abuse women suffer at the hands of their intimate partners.
An important part of the work of Women’s Aid is trying to achieve justice and social change to bring about better protection for women and children and greater accountability and sanction for perpetrators of domestic violence. In recent years, we have been encouraged by the current Government’s commitment to consolidating current domestic violence legislation and to signing the Istanbul Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women, already signed by 18 European states.
Women’s Aid carried out research to identify a number of gaps in current legislation and contributed to the consultation process set up by Government. Excellent work was undertaken by the Joint Committee chaired by David Staunton. However, we are concerned that, in light of the finite term remaining for Government, this work will not be prioritised before the calling of the next general election. We cannot wait any longer and women’s safety must not be dropped to the bottom of the list.
Better legal protection is needed in order to facilitate access to justice and safety for women being stalked online and for those women abused in dating relationships.
As a matter of urgency, Ireland must update stalking legislation and provide restraining orders to better protect victims. Current legislation which covers stalking, both traditional and cyber, does not work for domestic violence cases. It needs immediate improvement.
A recent EU-wide study on violence against women showed that 12 per cent of Irish women and girls over the age of 15 had experienced stalking, with 50 per cent of that group being stalked, physically and online, by a partner or ex. Stalking often escalates after separation and it is included in many domestic violence risk assessment tools as a high risk factor. We know that 23 per cent of women using our direct support services in 2014 were experiencing abuse from a former partner.
In practice, the definition of harassment in Section 10 of the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997 is complex and hard to prove. In the experience of Women’s Aid, this provision is rarely used to protect women who are stalked by their partners.
Women’s Aid has recommended that a specific offence of stalking should be introduced in Irish law, with a comprehensive but not exhaustive definition, including new forms of cyber-stalking. In order to maximise protection from stalkers that are or have been intimate partners, Women’s Aid also recommends that stalking be recognised as grounds to apply for a safety order. This would provide protection through the civil courts for those cases where a criminal court approach is not feasible or appropriate.
We also need to extend protection to younger women in dating relationships that are not covered by domestic violence legislation because they have never lived with their boyfriend. This gap remains despite recent research that domestic violence often starts at a much younger age than previously recognised and that it affects young women disproportionally.
International research shows that women aged between 16 and 19 years are at the highest risk of domestic violence, stalking and sexual assault (12.7 per cent, 8.5 per cent, and 7.9 per cent respectively). We have known from National Crime Council Research in 2005 that where there is severe abuse in intimate relationships in almost 60 per cent of cases it was experienced for the first time under the age of 25 years. 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.
A stark reminder of this risk are figures from our Female Homicide Watch which shows that over half of 18-25 year old women killed in Ireland since 1996 were murdered by their current or former boyfriend. To fully protect young women from dating abuse, Women’s Aid urges the Government to recognise that abuse within relationships can feature even when relationships aren’t “domestic”, by extending the Domestic Violence Act to make safety orders available to women who have never lived with their partners.
Women’s Aid was shocked recently by the unexpected news that Government funding to Women’s Aid will be cut by 20 per cent. Since 2008 we have endured cut after cut leading to a €221,000/27 per cent decrease in Tusla funding (and we thought the worst of the recession had passed). This year we had started work to extend our national freephone helpline to a 24 hour a day, seven days a week service from January 2016 in line with recommendations in the EU Victims Directive and the Istanbul Convention.
This most recent and most severe funding cut is incompatible with this week’s recommendation of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights to strengthen responses to domestic violence. It feels like a regressive step and a new recession for our organisation. We are trying to come to terms with the impact on our work, but the Women’s Aid national freephone helpline 1800341900 remains available 10 to 10, seven days a week
Whatever 2015 and beyond brings, Women’s Aid is committed to being there for every woman who need us, when she needs us.
Margaret Martin is Director of Women’s Aid.
See the Women’s Aid Impact Report 2014 at www.womensaid.ie