Domestic abuse crimes hit all-time high in Northern Ireland while funding stagnates

In the last year, domestic abuse crimes hit an all-time high in Northern Ireland. Figures released for 2021/22 by the PSNI show an increase of 14.2% from the previous year, the biggest jump since records began in 2004.

Domestic abuse crimes have increased every year, but many have blamed successive lockdowns for exacerbating the problem. In 2020/21, 20% of all crimes reported were domestic abuse crimes. This is up from around 8% in the late nineties.

One woman who was affected by this is Sarah*, a mother of two. She left her partner during one of the lockdowns. She told us that while her partner had been abusive before, lockdowns led to “more serious harm because that is ultimately what happened”.

She says “It just went from mental abuse, and then it got more… like the odd push. It went from a push to a dig, and then after that it was just a free for all. It was just everything. It went from one end to the opposite end in the space of about 6 months. And it was ultimately because of lockdown, there was nowhere else for him to vent it because we couldn’t go anywhere.”

She says Coronavirus made it harder “because nobody really took it seriously. They were just like ‘Ah it’s because you’re seeing each other all the time. You’re just arguing over stupid stuff.’ They didn’t think it was actually anything serious. They thought it was just me and him both arguing and pushing each other to the limit but it wasn’t like that at all… You didn’t really have anybody else to turn to.”

In the first three weeks of lockdown, the PSNI received a 10% increase in calls relating to domestic abuse. During the final incident of her domestic abuse, Sarah rang the police – “I risked the kids being taken off both of us, but I had to because I would not have walked out that day.” On average, six people are killed per year in Northern Ireland as a result of domestic abuse.

Women’s Aid ABCLN CEO Rosemary Magill says “One in four women will experience domestic abuse in their lifetime, yet we know domestic abuse is one of the most under reported and under recorded crimes. The 14.2% increase in domestic abuse crimes in the last year is alarming. On average PSNI respond to one incident every 17 minutes. For every incident of domestic abuse, we know the impact on women and children living with violence and abuse can be devastating. Thirteen women have been murdered with a domestic abuse motivation in Northern Ireland since lockdown began.”

Domestic abuse has had a higher public profile recently – there is the oft-quoted statistic that Northern Ireland, tied with Romania, is the most dangerous place in Europe to be a woman. This has now been clarified by the PSNI, but has the raised profile brought about change?

In February, the Protection against Stalking Bill was passed. It made stalking a specific offence and offered higher penalties for perpetrators. Women are at higher risk of homicide after leaving an abusive partner. Last year, coercive control was made a crime in Northern Ireland, bringing it in line with the rest of the UK.

While this move offers legal protection to women, lack of funding across women’s services makes it harder for women to leave. Women’s Aid ABCLN CEO, Rosemary Magill says “The budget for the NI Housing Executive Supporting People Programme funds, which our accommodation services and support for women experiencing domestic abuse in the community, has not changed since 2009. Women’s Aid ABCLN provides a vital lifeline for women and children and with escalating need and economic crisis increased funding is essential.”

The Supporting People Programme provides funding for over 850 housing support services – Women’s Aid is just one of these. It supports 19,000 service users. The rising cost of gas, electricity and oil combined with the rise in domestic violence crimes means that this budget is under intense pressure.  

This pressure is reflected in Sarah’s experience – her troubles were far from over after leaving her partner. She and her two young children were homeless for two months. The emergency housing she was offered afterwards was wholly unsuitable. She tells me, “They [the kids] needed comfort, they needed somewhere that was nice for them to go. The fridge was orange, it was that dirty. And the bed was mouldy that they expected the two boys to sleep on. I didn’t even have a bed.” She was unable to get a space in a Women’s Aid refuge and was told this was due to the funding pressures they are under.

Last year, Stormont’s Department for Communities sent almost £50 million in unspent funds back to Westminster. Rosemary said “We have major concerns that funds distributed under Barnett Formula from Treasury during Covid-19 pandemic were not all spent. Towards the end of March 2020, Women’s Aid groups across Northern Ireland challenged local Government departments to assign funds, due to be sent back to Westminster, to support our work in tackling domestic abuse.”

For women like Sarah, more funding can’t come soon enough. She says, “The support available immediately after is horrendous. It takes a few months to actually get any help.” Fortunately, Sarah was able to move in with family while she got back on her feet. Many of the women affected by the spike don’t have this option.

For anyone reading this article who may be experiencing domestic violence, you can contact Women’s Aid by emailing helpline@womensaid.org.uk or calling one of the numbers in their directory. If you are in immediate danger, please call 999.