Women’s Aid plea with executive to give legal protection to rising number of domestic abuse victims

A dramatic increase in the number of reported domestic abuse incidents and deaths caused by domestic abuse has raised red flags for many in the community.

According to the latest PSNI reports, domestic abuse calls were above the expected weekly average between 23rd March 2020 and mid-August 2020, implying that the COVID-19 restrictions have played a part in the rising number of cases.

Additionally, these reports show that overall crime rates fell due to the lockdown in March 2020, but domestic abuse crimes rose to contribute to 19.7 per cent of all reported crime, compared to just making up 16.9 per cent of overall crime during the previous year.

This is the highest proportion of overall police recorded crime since the current domestic abuse data series began in 2004/05. These statistics are then divided into type of domestic abuse crime, with violence without injury, violence with injury and harassment being the three leading types.

Although these statistics seem staggering enough already, not all domestic abuse incidents are reported, so it is thought that many more victims could be suffering in silence. These incidents are not just numbers and statistics on reports – they are real lives and real people experiencing this appalling abuse.

Karen Devlin, the social media director for Women’s Aid Northern Ireland, explained the true danger of simplifying the “stay home, stay safe” message: “Unfortunately in domestic abuse relationships that’s the most unsafe place you could be because you’re now trapped in with your perpetrator”, she said.

Women’s Aid Northern Ireland was founded in 1975 and is made up of nine local Women’s Aid groups. Each group offers a variety of specialist services to women, children and young people who are experiencing or have experienced domestic violence.

Women’s Aid’s vision for the 21st century is the elimination of domestic violence and strives to welcome any woman, young person or child no matter what their background is.

Although the pandemic and lockdown created a lot of negativity for various businesses and charities, Women’s Aid decided to take the unusual circumstances to create a new opportunity.

Karen explained, “last year we launched our “unlock your lockdown” campaign, to basically let people know that you’re not alone, and just because it’s lockdown doesn’t mean Women’s Aid isn’t here to help you”, she said.

“This really resonated with the public because the idea of lockdown for people who aren’t in those domestic abuse situations was straining as they were being trapped inside and we all felt that. For those who are in domestic abuse relationships that’s what life feels like constantly – you feel alone, you feel isolated, and you don’t feel safe”, she said.

Since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, 8 women in Northern Ireland have been killed as a result of domestic abuse.

Karen was part of the team at Women’s Aid that put forward the petition asking for a specific law to be put in place to protect women and girls in Northern Ireland against violence.

“The petition came out of a lack of the violence against women and girls strategy and we are the only part of the UK that doesn’t have this particular strategy”, she said. Karen explained that this strategy has been in place in England for nearly ten years already and that Wales have a member of government in place just for this specific issue.

“In England, Scotland and Wales these strategies have been long established and we just wanted to protect women as best as possible”.

Although other public justice groups had flagged the issue, it had never been seriously taken forward and dealt with and Karen stated that “that’s the reason we made the decision to start the petition to raise awareness that this strategy doesn’t exist in Northern Ireland and we felt it was unfair that women wouldn’t have this strategy in place just because of their postcode”, she said.

When the petition reached 10,000 signatures and Arlene Foster responded, Women’s Aid knew this had got the attention it long deserved. Karen said “we were so glad that the assembly voted in favour of it and then the executive agreed to introduce the strategy. We are so happy to work with the ministers and the executive to make this strategy as comprehensive as possible”.

Against all expectations, the petition quickly surpassed the needed number of signatures and it gained 17,000 signatures in less than two weeks. “This really shows the people power of our communities” Karen explained. “That petition took off because people really understood the importance of it and it was so great to see. I’ve been involved in local politics for around 15 years and I’ve never seen a petition take off so quickly”, she said.

To sign the petition, visit http://chng.it/LFH46F55fb, or to contact Women’s Aid visit https://www.womensaidni.org/contact-us/