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An Ulster University research study has found how experiences of and responses to domestic violence were impacted by the Northern Ireland conflict and the changes that have taken place since the Good Friday Agreement.

The study was funded by the Department of International Development (UK) as part of the Political Settlements Research Programme, based at the University of Edinburgh, and is the first study of its kind comparing findings on domestic violence during conflict to what happens afterwards.

With support from Women’s Aid Federation Northern Ireland, approximately 120 women victim/survivors of domestic violence were interviewed; 56 women in 1992 and 63 in 2016.

The key findings from the study show that:

  • The threat of firearms that previously existed in domestic violence situations has been greatly reduced as a result of the decommissioning of weapons and the demobilisation of paramilitary groups.
  • Perpetrators of domestic violence still draw on paramilitary connections  to threaten their partner in 2016 but this has less impact than it did in the 1992 study.
  • Paramilitary style attacks are much less likely to be used to punish perpetrators of domestic and sexual violence in 2016 compared to 1992.
  • Post conflict, police officers have become more responsive to domestic violence. The increase in training, quicker response times and greater accessibility for police to nationalist/republican and loyalist working class areas are significant factors here.
  • A strong link continues to exist between domestic violence and poor mental health, with one in four women in the 2016 study reporting that they had attempted to take their own life and one in two reporting suicidal thoughts.
  • Sexual abuse in domestic violence relationships is more prevalent than official statistics suggest. Almost half of those interviewed in 2016 reported that they had been raped or sexually assaulted by their husband/partner.
  • Religious attitudes still exert a strong influence on decision-making processes and help seeking for victims/survivors of domestic violence.
  • Levels of dissatisfaction with primary health providers remains high. Two-thirds of those who had visited GP’s were not happy with their response, reporting that GP’s lacked training and knowledge in this area, were over reliant on prescribing anti-depressants for issues arising from domestic violence and/or did not have time to talk in busy surgeries.
  • Over half of those interviewed reported that their children had also been subjected to domestic violence. Dissatisfaction with social services was high, with women reporting that social workers appeared more concerned about the children and pressed contact between children and their abusive fathers.

The study makes a number of recommendations including; that the benefits of police reform, the removal of illegal firearms and the regulation of legal firearms should be applied to other societies emerging from conflict given their positive impact on domestic violence. The links between domestic violence, suicide and other mental health problems means that health care professionals need additional training and resources to identify and follow up on cases of domestic violence. The study also recommends that the legislation incorporating coercive control and psychological abuse should not be delayed any further in Northern Ireland.

Emeritus Professor Monica McWilliams, Ulster University said:

“The peace process has made a huge difference but there is still much work to do. The research shows that while much progress has been made over the last 25 years, a more consistent approach is needed in preventing and providing support for domestic violence.”

Dr Jessica Doyle, Research Associate, Ulster University said:

“Domestic violence remains a key problem in our society and one that must be addressed with greater protection for victims through legislative and policy change. It is clear from the research that preventing it has benefits not only for women but for future generations.”

Noelle Collins, Team leader Belfast and Lisburn Women’s Aid stated:

“This is an invaluable piece of research which highlights how far we have progressed in our response to women and children experiencing domestic violence and shows what can be achieved when agencies come together to tackle this ongoing issue.”