By Ivana Bacik.
A poignant vigil was held outside Leinster House to mark the start of Women’s Aid’s ‘16 days of action against domestic violence’. The empty shoes of the 78 women murdered in Ireland by their partners or ex-partners since 1996, and the ten children murdered alongside their mothers, were lined up along Kildare Street. We stood silently alongside, to remember and commemorate the tragedies of those lost lives.
The seriousness, frequency and pervasiveness of the violence labelled ‘domestic’ is often played down or denied. It is all too often explained away by external factors such as alcoholism or unemployment. It is often wrongly regarded as being particular to disadvantaged communities. It is sometimes portrayed as a reaction to provocation from the victim. Even where victims are not directly blamed for provoking the violence, they are often regarded as complicit in it because they stay with their abusers.
Research has contradicted these problematic myths and shown that domestic violence is not a rare or isolated event within otherwise happy families. It has found that apparently ‘passive partners’, who stay with their abuser and endure violence against themselves and their children, may have undergone serious personality changes as a result of the abuse. Many may have nowhere else to go.
An increasingly vocal group of activists has in recent years challenged the evidence that most domestic violence is carried out by men against women. Research has established that women make up the vast majority of victims of domestic abuse. The 2005 National Crime Council report, for instance, found that about one in seven women, compared to about one in 16 men, have experienced severely abusive behaviour of a physical, sexual or emotional nature from a partner at some point in their lives. The study found that women were nearly twice as likely as men to require medical treatment for their injuries and ten times more likely to require a hospital stay.
The inadequacies of legal responses to domestic violence were highlighted by interviewees in this report and have been emphasised in other research. High attrition levels and low conviction rates back up these perceptions of legal inadequacy.
A core problem with the criminal law is that few acts of domestic violence are isolated events. The criminal law is generally designed to deal with once-off incidents, and to attribute liability for those isolated events to particular offenders. It can be difficult to apply it in the context of an ongoing abusive relationship.
It is actually difficult to ascertain how effective the criminal law is, given the well-established evidence that most domestic violence goes unreported.
This year, during hearings into domestic and sexual violence conducted by the Oireachtas Justice and Equality Committee, we heard extensive evidence about these issues. In October, we published our report, recommending significant legal change, for example to provide for a specific criminal offence of ‘domestic violence’ or ‘domestic abuse’. Currently, abusers are prosecuted under assault laws, or for breaches of barring orders.
We recommended the need for emergency barring orders, so that the abuser and not the injured party should be required to leave the family home. We called for the establishment of a ‘domestic violence register’ to catalogue details of convicted abusers.
Comprehensive review of the law on domestic violence is long promised. We are hopeful that our recommendations will feed into codifying legislation that we anticipate will be brought forward in 2015.
Susan Edwards, a leading researcher in domestic violence law in Britain, wrote nearly 20 years ago that: “Domestic violence until the 1970s was regarded as a rare phenomenon. Criminal law was rarely, if ever, invoked to prosecute aggressors. A far wider range of remedies is now available. But stereotypical attitudes and expectations of woman and men persist, these inform the law and militate against the justice and protection victims receive. The law, whilst it makes claims to offer remedies and protection to victims, is replete with obstacles and difficulties for the applicant or complainant seeking safety and protection”. These words still have resonance in Ireland today for victims and survivors of so-called ‘domestic’ and other forms of gender-based violence. •