The political crisis in Northern Ireland could be putting ground-breaking progress on domestic violence at risk. That’s the message that Women’s Aid will be delivering, as they host global coercive control expert Professor Evan Stark for a 3 day visit to Northern Ireland this month.

Proposed legislation to make coercive and controlling behaviour an offence was drafted by the Department of Justice while Claire Sugden was Justice Minister. This would have brought Northern Ireland in line with England and Wales, where similar legislation has already been proven to support victims and increase convictions for domestic abuse.

The Executive collapsed and a snap election was called before the legislation was brought to the Assembly floor. Now, due to the current political stalemate, domestic violence victims remain unprotected by law if they suffer coercive control abuse.

Women’s Aid Northern Ireland will host Professor Evan Stark, the leading global expert on coercive control, where he will be keynote speaker at a conference on coercive control on Wednesday 22nd March.

Professor Stark, who advised the English, Welsh and Scottish governments in developing their coercive control laws, will also meet with officials, politicians and agencies in Northern Ireland to lend his expertise and guidance on enacting similar legislation here.

Speaking about the conference, Women’s Aid CEO Jan Melia said:

“We are so grateful to Evan Stark for coming back to Northern Ireland to shine a light on the need for a coercive control law here. Coercive control is at the heart of domestic abuse. Perpetrators inflict deliberate suffering on their victims, limiting their personal freedom, monitoring their every move and stripping away their control. We are not talking about a bit of name-calling or being mean, coercive control is a sustained pattern of intimate terrorism.

She continued:

This new law will help police, judges and courts to understand and better respond to domestic violence, and ensure that domestic violence perpetrators are no longer able to abuse their victims with impunity. But the longer the political crisis drags on, the longer victims will have no legal protections against this heinous form of domestic violence.

We need a working Government which deals with these important issues and works to protect our citizens. We need to stop letting down victims and survivors, and give them the same protections as those available in other parts of the UK.”

What is coercive control?

Coercive Control is a deliberate and calculated pattern of psychological abuse designed to isolate, manipulate and terrorise a victim into complete fearful obedience. Although this kind of behaviour often happens in domestic abuse and is an indicator of risk of serious physical violence, it is not currently a crime in Northern Ireland.

The severe impact of coercive control on victims has recently come to light after a number of high-profile cases including that of Britain’s Got Talent contestant Becky O’Brien, and the gripping storyline of Helen and Rob in BBC4 drama series The Archers.

Why do we need this legislation?

  • Many women, men and LGBTQ people in Women’s Aid services tell us that the coercive control element of their abuse is much worse to endure, and more difficult to recover from, than the physical violence.
  • The psychological impact of coercive control can be as devastating as the trauma of experiencing physical attacks.[1]
  • Studies have proven similarities between coercive control and political terrorism[2], hostage situations, and treatment of POWs and concentration camp inmates.[3]
  • Coercive control can be an indicator of future serious violence resulting in death of victims.
  • There are many cases of domestic homicide where victims did not suffer previous physical abuse, but they were victims of extreme forms of coercive control.[4]

If you have been affected by coercive control or any form of domestic or sexual violence, call the 24 Hour Domestic & Sexual Violence Helpline – 0808 802 1414. There is someone waiting to listen and help you get the support you need. The helpline is open to all women and men affected by domestic or sexual violence, including coercive control and emotional abuse.

[1] Litrownik, A. J., Newton, R., Hunter, W. M., English, D. J., & Everson, M. D. (2003). Exposure to family violence in young at-risk children: A longitudinal look at the effects of victimization and witnessed physical and psychological aggression. Journal of Family Violence, 18, 59−73; Evan Stark, Coercive Control

[2] Steven Morgan, Conjugal Terrorism: A Psychology and Community Treatment Model of Wife Abuse (1982)

[3] Lewis Okun, Woman Abuse: Facts Replacing Myths (1986)

[4] Evan Stark, Coercive Control