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Victim-blaming culture makes it more difficult for women to get help

With recent high profile domestic violence cases, Margaret Martin of Women’s Aid reflects on society’s tendency to judge, shame and distrust victims.

Margaret Martin

ONE IN FIVE women in Ireland will experience domestic violence at some point in their life.

Last year, as outlined in our recent Impact Report, women told us that they were kept prisoner in their homes, cut with knives, stabbed, spat on, punched, slapped, kicked, held down and choked, and beaten with household items. Many women disclosed that they were beaten during pregnancy.

Women told us that they were constantly verbally abused, belittled, criticised, stalked and harassed, including online, both during the relationship and after leaving. Women reported that they had been raped, sexually assaulted and given no option but to comply with their abuser’s sexual demands.

Altogether there were 16,375 disclosures of domestic violence against women and 5,966 reports of child abuse made to our services in 2015.

Domestic violence has no boundaries and women from all walks of life are abused by those closest to them such as current or former husbands, partners and boyfriends. Those abusers come from all walks of life too.

Yet very often abusive men are excused when we talk about addressing domestic violence, and the responsibility for the abuse is unfairly placed on the women.

Judgement and disbelief

Every day on our national helpline, we hear from women who feel trapped, alone and isolated. Their journey to safety can be long and difficult.

A common reaction to a woman speaking about her experience of domestic violence is to focus on her credibility, her actions and her behaviour. Society analyses and judges her choices. Unhelpful speculation can include suggestions that she is lying or that her actions may have provoked the abuse.

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.

This victim-blaming culture makes it more difficult for women to get help and removes any responsibility from the abuser. Many women who ring us talk about the importance and the relief of being believed.

Excuses not sanctions

This is a very dangerous and hidden reality for women in our families, our workplaces and our communities. The cases that we do hear about in our courts, in the media and on our national helpline are only the tip of the iceberg.

Silence perpetuates abuse and most abusers never have to answer for their crimes. They can remain the pillars of the community, the dedicated family men, the Hollywood star or sporting legend. And even when his behaviour is made public the first reaction is not to sanction his abuse, but to excuse his behaviour and to understand ‘what made him do it?’

What is important to remember is that domestic violence is a deliberate and intended behaviour rather than the consequence of stress, individual pathology, substance use or a ‘dysfunctional’ or ‘tempestuous’ relationship. Domestic violence is about gaining control, not losing it.

The challenge for society is to treat the crime of domestic abuse as seriously as it deserves and place the responsibility solely at the hands of the perpetrator. Until we do, women will remain at risk and afraid to speak up.

Margaret Martin is the director of Women’s Aid.

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, contact the Women’s Aid national freephone helpline 1800 341 900 or visit their website.

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About the author:

Margaret Martin

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