Women’s Aid NI is pleased to see a renewed commitment to tackling domestic abuse as evidenced in the Queen’s Speech yesterday afternoon. The proposed changes to the law via the introduction of the Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill, and the establishment of a Domestic Violence and Abuse Commissioner to stand up for victims and survivors and monitor the response of the authorities, will help keep survivors safe. The new provisions will also give a much needed boost to awareness of domestic abuse, highlighting it as a key social issue.
For Northern Ireland, the changes should encourage us to continue with the work that began in the last mandate. We need secure services, long-term funding (5 years at least) and new innovative approaches, and we need to ensure a strong partnership approach with Government and all departments. We also need a clear and ongoing commitment from Government that, once it returns to Stormont, it will do everything in its power to tackle domestic abuse.
In Northern Ireland, we have not benefited from the additional £20 million funding that was allocated in March 2017 to help improve and support vital services. In contrast, we are in fact experiencing decreased funding in NI – our emergency refuge services were cut by 6%. This will inevitably mean job losses, waiting lists and, ultimately, increased risk to the safety of women and children. But it also signals a lack of value. Our services are being undervalued and ultimately this also suggests that women’s lives and those of their children are being undervalued.
This year we are experiencing an all-time high in the reporting of domestic abuse incidents. This is a strong signal that we need to do more, not less. It is imperative that we respond to domestic abuse in new and innovate ways, moving beyond processes that focus on managing risk and towards an overarching regional approach that places survivors at the heart of everything we do.
We need to create a coherent approach, ensuring that all services work together to support survivors. To do this, we need a dedicated funding stream and we need to have our vital services recognised and valued by Government. Specialist services must be given the recognition and funding needed to protect women, children and men throughout NI.
We also need a robust preventative education programme in schools that enables us to talk to young people about healthy relationships. We also need a perpetrator programme to support men who want to address their violence.
We must work in partnership with survivors, listen to them, and reshape our work, laws and processes to better meet their needs. We must also end the ‘postcode lottery’, making sure we reach out to rural communities. We need to do more than manage risk; we must place the survivor at the centre of service provision, working in accordance with her needs and strengths to build long-term safety and independence for her and her children.