Domestic violence is now out in the open but the figures show just how endemic it is

Threat comes in many forms. Fist by Shutterstock

Domestic violence is physically, emotionally, psychologically and socially devastating to women and can have similarly devastating effects on their infants and children. The Home Office highlights that while domestic violence can be directed at men by women and can happen in same-sex relationships, the unequivocal majority of domestic abuse (more than 77%) is committed by men against women. In the UK, one in four women experiences domestic violence and this violence accounts for almost a quarter of all crime.

This violence can take many forms including physical (hitting, kicking, restraining), sexual (including assault, coercion, female genital mutilation), psychological (verbal bullying, undermining, social isolation) and financial (withholding money, or demanding unrealistic expectations with the household budget). The human cost to victims and families can be enormous, including the breakdown in relationships and families, and a reduction in life opportunities for individuals and children.

A view from Northern Ireland

We’ve been researching the devastating effects of domestic violence on women and children in Northern Ireland for the past ten years and what we’ve found gives a good picture of how and where violence happens. Like the UK figure, one in four women in Northern Ireland will likely experience domestic violence at some point in their lives, and some 11,000 children live with domestic violence.

This can have immediate and lifelong traumatic effects to health and well-being. Statistics from the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) show that there were more than 27,500 incidents of domestically motivated violence in 2013-14 – this accounts for a third of all reported crimes and corresponds to a domestic incident every 19 minutes of every day of the year.

The British Crime Survey suggests that women are at greater risk of repeat victimisation and serious injury; 89% of those suffering four or more incidents are women. However the problem appears slightly greater in Northern Ireland, where the NI Crime Survey revealed that almost half (49%) of women with repeat victimisation experienced domestic violence from a perpetrator on more than one occasion, and that a quarter (27%) were victimised on four or more occasions. For 56% of this group the violence and abuse started around the time of pregnancy and delivery of a baby.

We know that domestic violence has serious health consequences and is a common cause of physical injury; depression and alcohol/drug misuse; self-harm and suicide and has serious effects in pregnancy and older age. In its most extreme form, domestic violence kills women – seven women were killed in Northern Ireland in 2013.

Only around a quarter of women ever report their worst assault to the police, and, on average, a victim is assaulted 35 times before reporting the incident or seeking support. It has also been estimated that only 29% of domestic violence incidents are reported and in reality, we do not know the full extent of the problem. In 2013, Women’s Aid (NI) provided refuge to 1,077 women and 854 children, with 2,938 women accessing their floating support service, which enables women to access support while remaining in their own homes and communities.

Vulnerable groups

Women are vulnerable to violence at certain times of their life. Pregnancy is seen as a period of significant risk and it is well-recognised that domestic violence is more likely to begin or escalate during this time. Of women who suffer abuse, 35% experience an increase during pregnancy and the post-natal period leading to increased rates of depression and anxiety and substance misuse.

Older women aged over 50 who are victims of domestic violence are also a vulnerable group and may suffer silently because the problem is often ignored. These older women face serious barriers to accessing support and are offered few appropriate services when they manage to enter the service system. Psychological abuse has the strongest impact on older women’s lives by destroying their self-confidence, self-efficacy and coping abilities.

Children and adolescents are extremely vulnerable to domestic violence. Within the UK it is estimated that up to one million children have been exposed to domestic violence, yet, in spite of these stark statistics, there has until recently been a systemic failure by public agencies to appreciate that the presence of domestic violence should be an indicator of the importance of assessing children’s need for support and protection if they live in the same household as the victim.

Alarmingly, between 55% and 90% of domestic violence occurs when children and young people are present or nearby, and this violence has serious, negative consequences on their immediate and life-long health and well-being.

Studies show that these children experience serious traumatic effects and high levels of depression and anxiety and low self-esteem; exhibit behavioural problems and developmental delay. Domestic violence and child abuse and neglect are inter-connected. At its worst domestic violence and/or child abuse is associated with mortality in children under five years, and infants in their first year of life are particularly vulnerable.

Internationally, domestic violence is a serious criminal, human rights and public safety problem with serious consequences for families and society, but it is only relatively recently that the issue has been recognised as something not kept private, to remain between people in their own homes. There is no doubt that this violence constitutes a significant public health issue and children growing up with violence can only be detrimental to society as a whole. The figures above it’s clear that we need new ways to tackle what is an endemic problem.