Through police statistics, it is evident that domestic abuse across Northern Ireland is on the rise, with increasing levels of abuse every year since 2004. Abuse can take a number of forms including physical, psychological, financial and emotional. Police are responding to domestic abuse call outs every 17 minutes and domestic abuse violence accounted for 16% of all crimes across NI. It is easy to see domestic abuse as an individual, contextual issue per person, however research shows that the effects of domestic abuse are intergenerational and often result in long term negative impacts. It is important to acknowledge that domestic abuse happens to both men and women, however currently women are still overwhelmingly the victims of abuse. Northern Ireland is recorded as having the second highest femicide rate in Europe and the highest rate in the UK. Something needs to change.
Northern Ireland is a unique part of the UK as it is a post-conflict community. From the years of 1968 to 1998, Northern Ireland was subject to war torn streets because of The Troubles. 3,600 people killed and over 30,000 people wounded during The Troubles as a result of street fighting, bombings, sniper attachs, roadblocked, internment without trial; a civil war. Research has found that in post-conflict communities, there is higher rates of domestic and family violence against women and children. Thus suggesting that the end to the violence in the public sphere only translated more violence into the private sphere. A further study shows a correlation between limited participation of women in a society and domestic violence. Thus showing that conservative views in society which see domestic violence as a private issue and which stigmatises women, creates barriers for women wanting to leave violent relationships. This suggests that the government action is taken towards domestic violence in Northern Ireland, it should account for the wider debate on structural gender inequalities within our societies and thus equally provide services that have a gender sensitive approach.
COVID-19 has been a catalyst for domestic abuse, with a surge in PSNI domestic abuse reports since the lockdown measures were introduced. Since lockdown began, there have been over 3,755 domestic abuse calls to the PSNI. There have also been 3 domestic violence related deaths in Northern Ireland since lockdown began. Three.
It’s easy for those in situations to question why those in abusive relationships do not leave. It’s hard to understand what most of us do not see. However, you only need to scratch at the surface to understand the emotional, physical, financial torment that causes a lot of domestic abuse survivors to stay in their situation. It becomes a trade off of their pain against future pain, instability, children, all things one must question in that situation. One of the most damaging things for people, particularly women in domestic abuse situations, is financial independence; can it be done?
The new two child policy within Universal Credit allows the funding for 2 children only (3 in exceptional circumstances whereby there is a multiple birth, twins, triplets etc). The two child policy keeps women within a cage, especially if they have more than 2 children or are pregnant. Many women stay in domestic abuse situations because they are financially unable to leave, how would they be able to support their children if they simply cannot afford to? This was exasperated through the pandemic. It’s exceptionally rare that parents can ensure their financial security withstanding unpredictive circumstances such as illness, redundancy or bereavement, regardless of a pandemic! What the two child policy is essentially doing is keeping women in harmful situations through financial manipulation. They often would be unable to support their families away from their abusive partner, which gives them no option but to stay. This could be due to the reliance on universal credit, which is now distributed primarily as a household rather than on an individual basis, thus leaving domestic abuse victims particularly vulnerable. How are we allowing this?
It’s not only the austerity of universal credit, it’s the legal system damning women who take the brave step of taking her abuser to court and having to face them without any legal support. Universal credit takes 5 weeks to come through, within that time, many women have to apply for Legal Aid. Legal Aid is a means tested benefit which requires a benefit award letter that is dated within the same four weeks. Often, abusers have the financial ability to get a solicitor who can pursue a hasted court date. Thus, the woman is left without the Legal Aid and therefore has to support herself, as evidence is not supplied through government means fast enough.
Increasing government austerity puts those who are vulnerable in perilous danger. Despite ‘best efforts’ made, universal credit is not efficient enough to cope with the rising domestic abuse cases; often resulting in women having to remain in abusive relationships. The power the abuser takes away from their victim is enough. We need to have more effective systems in place that support those who need it most; getting them to the safe place in which most of us dwell.
Megan Stewart is from Cornwall and is a graduate of Queen’s University Belfast in Business Management. Megan is also a blogger for Letters to Fooliet and a women’s rights campaigner.