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Column: No behaviour that degrades women can be dismissed as ‘just a domestic’

Putting the abuser back in the picture is what we should strive towards, says Margaret Martin, who says society focuses attention and responsibility on the victims of domestic violence rather than the perpetrators.

Margaret Martin

IN ADDITION TO the shocking sight of a woman with a man’s hand around her throat and fear in her eyes, another striking aspect of the photographs used in the media coverage in recent days of Charles Saatchi and Nigella Lawson case is that the most widely used image has cut him out and zoomed in on her face and neck.  The only part of Saatchi visible is his hand around her throat.

This reflects how society reacts to domestic violence as we tend to focus attention and responsibility on the woman and remove the abuser from the picture.

Domestic violence can impact on women from all walks of life

Domestic violence is a crime that affects one in five women in Ireland at some point her life.  It is a common crime but one that is very often minimised, hidden and ignored.  Domestic violence has no boundaries and women from all walks of life are abused by those closest to them – their current or former husbands, partners and boyfriends.  Last week, Women’s Aid launched our Annual Report where we highlighted the 16,200 disclosures of domestic violence against women and 3,230 reports of direct child abuse made to our services in 2012.

Domestic violence includes physical assault, emotional cruelty, verbal abuse, financial abuse, rape, and sexual assault.  Strangulation is a common form of physical abuse disclosed by callers to our National Freephone Helpline and bare hands remain the most common weapon used by perpetrators of abuse.  Research from the US shows that 54 per cent of women surveyed in a woman’s refuge who said that they had experienced strangulation had done so more than once and 70 per cent of women believed they would die as a result.

Strangulation is a very serious act and it only takes 10 seconds of pressure applied to a person’s neck before the person loses consciousness.  A hold of 50 seconds or more can be fatal.  No behaviour which so degrades and violates women and children can be dismissed as ‘just a domestic’. The impact of domestic violence is significant, long-term and wide ranging.

It is about control

Domestic violence is a deliberate behaviour rather than the consequence of stress, individual pathology, substance use or a ‘dysfunctional’ relationship. Domestic violence is about gaining control, not losing it and responsibility for the abuse and violence is the perpetrator’s alone. However, a common reaction to women experiencing domestic violence is to focus on her actions and her behaviour.  We analyse and judge her choices.  Unhelpful speculation can include suggestions that her actions provoked the abuse and that her own presumed “self-esteem issues” makes her choose a relationship with a violent man.

This victim blaming mentality plays into the perpetrator’s hands as it reinforces what he has been telling her all along.  That it something about her, not him, that has caused the abuse and that it is her fault for not leaving the relationship.  This belief system makes it more difficult for women and children to get help and removes responsibility from the abuser.

The most common question levelled at women affected by domestic violence is why don’t you just leave? Many women stay with abusive men because it is extremely difficult for them to leave. No one enjoys being beaten, threatened and humiliated in their own homes.  Understanding emotional abuse and its impact on women is vital to appreciating the complexities of domestic violence.  We hear from women who thought that it could never happen to them and many women are reduced to shells of their former selves by an on-going and unrelenting campaign of emotional abuse designed to leave them dependent on their abuser, isolated from family and friends and blaming themselves for the abuse.

Grooming their partners

The tactics of abuse can be very subtle and difficult to recognise. Some tactics of abuse may seem insignificant in isolation but abusive men will quite often groom their partners to facilitate their controlling and abusive behaviour.

As a national charity that has been supporting women for nearly 40 years, we know that leaving an abusive relationship is fraught with difficulty.  Whilst the risk of staying may be very high, simply leaving the relationship does not guarantee that the violence will stop. In fact, the period during which a woman is planning or making her exit, is often the most dangerous time for her and her children. Many women are frightened of the abuser, and with good reason. It’s common for perpetrators to threaten to harm or even kill their partners or children if she leaves.

Last year, many women also told us that they had received death threats from their partners and we know that since 1996 190 women have been murdered in Ireland and in 54 per cent of the resolved cases the woman was killed by their partner or ex-partner.

The recession has made it more difficult for women

In addition to this, the ability of some women to escape domestic violence is being hampered by the recession. Women fear increased impoverishment, losing their home and the effect of poverty on their children. Women, who do try to leave, often find it harder or impossible to access vital supports such as housing, refuge, welfare and legal representation.

For those outside the relationship, whether known to the woman or not, witnessing a public display of domestic violence is very disturbing and it can often put people in a difficult situation as they may be conditioned into thinking that it is a private affair. But domestic violence is not private and should be treated as seriously as any other crime.  If someone overhears an incident or sees a violent attack on someone they should ring the police and/or bring it to the attention to someone in authority in the locality – for example, the security guard in the shopping centre or at the apartment block, or the maitre’d in the restaurant.  The abuse of any human being by another is everyone’s business and the safety of the victim is paramount.

Women’s Aid believes that it is vital that good and effective supports are available to women when they begin to address their situation. These include good legal protection, the practical and emotional support of their family and friends, safe housing and support of organisations like Women’s Aid.

Despite the harrowing details behind each story of domestic violence, help is available.

Margaret Martin is the director of Women’s Aid. It is the only free, national, domestic violence helpline with specialised trained staff. Women’s Aid also offers a Dublin-based One to One Support Service and Court Accompaniment Service and also refers to local refuges and support services around the country. The Women’s Aid Helpline 1800 341 900, 10am to 10pm, 7 days a week.  The Helpline is also available for family, friends and professionals concerned about women living with domestic violence.www.womensaid.ie

Read: Charles Saatchi given police caution after grasping Nigella Lawson’s throat>

Read: Victims of stalking and domestic violence to get EU-wide protection>

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Margaret Martin

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