Even one death is one too many... say domestic violence support service

We have to do more to save women and children, says Sarah Benson, CEO of Women’s Aid, who was speaking following the launch of their Femicide Watch report
Even one death is one too many... say domestic violence support service

Sarah Benson, CEO of Women’s Aid, with Kathleen Chada, mother of two boys murdered by their father and victim advocate, launching Women’s Aid’s Femicide Watch 2019 which contains figures on the killing of women and their children in Ireland Picture:PaulSharp/SHARPPIX

THE Women’s Aid ‘A Legacy of Loss Femicide Watch 2019’ report makes for very sobering reading. It finds that women are more likely to die in their own homes and by a man known to them.

This fits a global pattern and is in stark contrast to male homicide victims, the majority of whom are killed by strangers. Strangers make up 13% of perpetrators of female homicide in Ireland. In over half of the resolved cases (56%), women were killed in by a current or former boyfriend, partner or husband.

Since our records began in 1996, 230 women have died violently in Ireland. 16 children, ranging from five months to 14 years old, have died alongside their mothers. 100 women have died at the hands of their current or former partners. These figures should shame Irish society. The legacy of loss is incalculable. The lives of the women and children named in our report were so valuable, so full of potential which is now unrealised. We want each of them to be remembered for their achievements, their qualities, their hopes and dreams. We want to make visible, not only these needless deaths, but also the lives of these women and children, who mattered so much to so many.

When women call Women’s Aid and tell us that they are afraid for their lives, we believe them. We know just how dangerous domestic abuse can be. Femicide by an intimate partner must not be accepted as a fact of life in our society. Women should be safe in their homes and in their relationships. And we must recognise the strong connection between the killing of women and domestic abuse.

Women’s Aid sees that the dangerous patterns present in abusive relationships, which can put women at risk of serious assault or homicide, are too often dismissed and not taken seriously. Many of the risk factors in domestic homicide cases overlap with behaviours and tactics used by perpetrators of domestic abuse including: threats to kill, abuse during pregnancy, jealousy, stalking and surveillance and highly controlling behaviour. Physical violence may not be a factor in all cases, prior to the point of escalation to murder.

One death is one too many and we have to do more to help save women and children’s lives. One key initiative that could help immediately is the introduction of a system of Domestic Homicide Reviews (DHRs). These reviews should be independently chaired, have powers to make and monitor recommendations to improve prevention.

Any DHR system must also include the testimony of family members of the woman, her informal community networks including friends and social groups. We know from other jurisdictions that DHRs are a very important tool for families and loved ones to have their voices heard after often feeling let down by or voiceless in the Criminal Justice System or in the aftermath of a case of murder.

Children and other bereaved family members may need specialist long term psychological support. This should be provided for free by the State for as long as it is needed by specifically trained counsellors. It is important that support is provided at times such as during appeals and parole reviews, which are re-traumatising for the family. Existing services and networks such as schools, faith leaders, social and community services, should also be trained on how to support families bereaved by domestic homicide in the community.

Risk assessment and risk management strategies can be developed and employed by agencies tasked to protect women and children, such as An Garda Síochána, social workers, HSE and other authorities and specialist domestic violence services. Many already have engaged in adopting such tools, which is extremely welcome.

The current Independent Study on Familicide and Domestic Homicide Reviews offers an excellent opportunity for Ireland to address these issues, including media reporting. Women’s Aid has made a detailed submission to the study and Norah Gibbons, who is leading the process, will address today’s seminar and update on the work to date. Women’s Aid believes that Ireland has the potential to move to a place where no domestic homicides occur.

It is important to note that the numbers of women murdered appear to be reducing — certainly in the last decade compared to the decade prior to that. We may not have a clear way to definitively determine causal factors, but it is important to reflect on what might we already be doing better now that we were 20 years ago? What can we take encouragement from? What can we build on? In recent years we have opened up the public discussion about domestic abuse, which I hope has reduced the serious stigma victim survivors feel, and encouraged more to seek support and speak out.

We need to ensure the social conversation remains continuous, so that families, friends, colleagues, employers of those living with abuse might be better equipped to know the signs and reach out a hand to those suffering - but also to safely challenge the behaviours and attitudes of perpetrators — who are, after all, someone’s family, friend or colleague also.

Sarah Benson is CEO of Women’s Aid. The Women’s Aid 24hr National Freephone Helpline 1800 341900 www.womensaid.ie

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