Kelly Andrews: We offer support to women suffering from domestic violence

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By Kelly Andrews, Chief Executive of Belfast-Lisburn Women’s Aid

We live in a society where domestic violence remains a serious problem. It has wide-ranging effects on physical and emotional health, well-being and family life. Domestic violence is a repeat crime that increases in severity over time. This places women and children at increased risk of harm, injury and death. Even with awareness raising, it remains shrouded in secrecy, fear and shame. This I know very well.

From the ages of 10 to 16, my mother and I lived with her partner. He was physically violent and emotionally abusive to her, eroding her self-esteem. We lived in an environment that was controlling and oppressive. Research suggests that on average women are assaulted 35 times before seeking help, reflecting its complex and hidden nature. My own experience illustrates this. On occasions, neighbours called the police to our door. There were no referrals to Women’s Aid, no referrals to social services or no Operation Encompass to inform my school.

In the United Kingdom, it is estimated that two women die every week because of domestic violence. Tragically, three women died in Northern Ireland during the last year. Through the work of Women’s Aid we seek to challenge attitudes and beliefs that perpetuate domestic violence; we offer safety and support leading to empowerment and to a life free from domestic violence.

There are a range of support services available to victims of domestic and sexual violence. The 24-hour regional Domestic and Sexual Violence Helpline – 0808 802 1414 – is available to all victims of domestic and sexual violence.

Specialist trained staff offer a listening ear and can make referrals to local Women’s Aid services or to partner agencies such as Nexus and the Men’s Advisory Project. We at Belfast and Lisburn Women’s Aid provide a range of life-saving services, from crisis refuge accommodation to counselling and support services. The number of women and children we support evidences the continued need for our services. We have an outreach team that provide services to women within local communities. The period April 2016 to March 2017, 303 women and 226 children were housed across our refuge service; 758 women and 2,048 children were supported through our outreach service.

We are proud to be able to provide high-quality, life-changing intervention and support services. 205 women completed our ‘Journey to Freedom’ programme and 203 attended our ‘New Beginnings’ programme. Through our children’s services 328 children participated in group work, 1,524 in one to one support sessions held for children. We also provide court support to women who are navigating the legal system.

In early 2016, the Department of Justice consulted on whether there should be a specific offence, which captured patterns of coercive and controlling behaviour. Following this consultation the Department of Justice began preparing a Domestic Abuse Bill, which it continues to develop. This Bill aims to provide for a new domestic abuse offence capturing patterns of psychological abuse, violence, and/or coercion of a partner, former partner or close family member. It also includes a statutory aggravation of domestic abuse, which may attract enhanced sentencing for other offences. The enactment of this Bill is subject to the legislative process, which is stalled due to the suspension of the Assembly. In the absence of a functioning Executive, Belfast and Lisburn Women’s Aid will continue to work with our sister Women’s Aid groups to lobby for a Domestic Abuse Bill for Northern Ireland.

I passionately believe no one should suffer in silence or isolation. We must speak out if we are ever to achieve our vision of eliminating domestic and sexual violence against women and children. We must continue to challenge societal attitudes and patriarchal structures that perpetuate gender-based violence.

My own childhood experience has led me to Women’s Aid and the vitally important services that free and empower women and children from the horror that is domestic violence. In the words of Malala Yousafzai (a Pakistani activist for female education and the youngest Nobel Prize laureate): “I tell my story not because it’s unique, because it is not.” I strive for the day when it is.

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