What is domestic violence?

Domestic violence is intentional and persistent abusive behaviour which is based on an unequal position of power and control. Domestic violence can include a range of behaviours used by one person to control another with whom they have, or have had, a close or family relationship.

Domestic violence takes many forms, physical, psychological, economic, sexual and emotional and can often be a combination of several of these. It includes forms of violent and controlling behaviour such as: physical assault, sexual abuse, rape, threats and intimidation, harassment, humiliating and controlling behaviour, withholding of finances, economic manipulation, deprivation, isolation, belittling and constant unreasonable criticism. Domestic violence is one element in the overall issue of violence against women, which includes, among other crimes, murder, rape, sexual assault, trafficking, sexual stalking and sexual harassment.

Domestic violence often occurs over a period of time. Victims of domestic violence will experience a range of emotions, including fear, reluctance, uncertainty, worry and stress. Domestic violence can impact upon a person’s self esteem and confidence, all of which can make leaving an abusive relationship a daunting and frightening step.

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Who can experience domestic violence?

Anyone can experience domestic violence. Domestic violence occurs across all groups in society, regardless of age, gender, race, religion, sexuality, wealth or geography. The majority of victims are women and children although research is highlighting the prevalence and context of male victims of domestic violence. Research and statistics, including MARAC statistics show that about 90% of reported cases are perpetrated by men against women. It is estimated that one in four women will suffer domestic violence at some point in their lives. The 24 Hour Domestic & Sexual Violence Helpline is here to help anyone affected by domestic violence.

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Does domestic violence happen in gay/lesbian/bisexual or transgender relationships?

Domestic violence can happen to anyone. Victims of domestic violence can include, lesbian, gay , bisexual and transgender individuals. The 24 Hour Domestic & Sexual Violence Helpline works closely with a range of relevant organisations to raise awareness in the wider community and elsewhere of the impact of homophobic, transphobic and same sex domestic violence on the lives of LGBT people. Help is also available from other agencies.

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Can men experience domestic violence?

While it is recognised and documented in research and statistics that the majority of domestic violence is perpetrated by men against women, it is also acknowledged and becoming increasingly recognised that men can experience violence from their female partners and in male gay relationships. It can be extremely difficult for men to acknowledge they are experiencing domestic violence and the stigma and shame attached to the issue can be a huge barrier in accessing support.

Everyone has a basic human right to live a life free from violence and abuse. Women’s Aid can provide helpline support to men who experience domestic violence and can also sign post to other agencies that can help. For many men, calling the helpline is the first step they have made in talking to someone else about the problems they face, whether it is information or emotional support.

» Information and support for male victims of domestic violence
» Support agencies for men

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Can women be perpetrators of domestic violence?

Research and statistics show that in the majority of cases, men perpetrate domestic violence against women. Domestic violence has its origins in power and control and is linked to issues of equality and gender. Deep rooted social traditions and values can contribute to the existence of patriarchal views that encourage men to believe they are entitled to power and control over their partner. However, it is becoming increasingly recognised that men can and do experience violence from female partners and domestic violence can also happen in lesbian relationships.

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How common is domestic violence?

Research has shown that approximately one in four women have or currently experience domestic violence. It is therefore very common. Statistics highlight the prevalence of the issue in Northern Ireland. Additional information on children, young people and domestic violence highlights their experiences.

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Is domestic violence a particular problem for Northern Ireland?

Domestic violence is not just a problem for Northern Ireland. To date, there is no robust research to indicate a correlation between the ‘troubles’ and the context and extent of domestic violence. Statistics indicate that domestic violence is a worldwide problem. Research shows domestic violence occurs in all social, economic, religious and cultural groups. According to the Family Violence Prevention Fund, one in every three women in the world has experienced sexual, physical, emotional or other abuse in her lifetime.

The World Health Organization (WHO), in a global study of 24,000 women, Multi-country Study on Women’s Health and Domestic Violence against Women reports that 10-69% women from around the world stated they had been physically assaulted by an intimate partner at some point in their lives. The report also shows that 40-70% of female murder victims from around the world were killed by an intimate partner.

UNICEF reports that between 20 – 50% of women around the world have suffered violence at the hands of an intimate partner. Global statistics provided in this report indicate a high prevalence of domestic violence no matter which country we focus on. Examples include:

  • Estonia: 29% of women aged 18-24 fear domestic violence.
  • Poland: 60% of divorced women surveyed reported having been hit at least once by their ex-husbands.
  • Tajikistan: 23% of 550 women aged 18-40 reported physical abuse.

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What are the effects of domestic violence?

The effects of domestic violence are wide ranging and will differ for all victims. In some cases the impact of domestic violence is fatal.

The obvious physical effects of domestic violence can include, physical injury such as cuts, bruising, broken bones etc. What is often not so obvious is the emotional suffering which can occur as a direct result of domestic violence. Such emotional suffering can have devastating effects on a victim which are prevalent in both the short and long term. Victims of domestic violence will experience a range of emotions, including fear, confusion, uncertainty, worry for their children, instability and anxiety all of which make it increasingly difficult to leave the relationship. Research has shown that domestic violence causes lasting damage to a victim’s physical and mental health, affecting all areas of their lives, including work, relationships, social life, confidence and self esteem etc. Recovering from the impact of domestic violence is a process which can be a long and painful journey.

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What causes domestic violence?

Domestic violence is deeply rooted in issues of power, control and inequality. There are many myths and realities about domestic-violence surrounding domestic violence, including that is caused by:

  • alcohol or drug misuse
  • mental illness
  • earlier experiences of violence or abuse

The reality is, however that it is caused by a misuse of power by one person (usually male) over another. Behaviour is always a choice and those who perpetrate domestic violence do so to get what they want and to gain control.

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Why don’t they leave?

Leaving an abusive relationship is a very long and difficult process. This is made difficult for a range of reasons. If someone is experiencing domestic violence, they may:

  • feel frightened and uncertain about what the future will hold
  • feel frightened for the children
  • feel it is in the children’s best interests to stay in the family home
  • feel ashamed and reluctant to tell or seek help
  • have such low confidence and self esteem that making decisions is a confusing and difficult task
  • be isolated from family and friends and feel they have no one to turn to
  • be worried about financial security if they leave
  • not have information on services available
  • have received a negative response, when they reached out to someone for support in the past
  • be too exhausted to take on any life changes or major decisions
  • still have feelings of love for their partner and fond memories of how things used to be
  • hope and believe that things will get better

It is important to remember, leaving is a process and not an event. Society has a responsibility to support women who make that difficult decision. All agencies can play a role in providing support during a woman and children’s help seeking process. A positive initial response is crucial. Women and children need to be believed, supported and encouraged to take positive steps for their own safety and well being.

Unfortunately leaving does not always stop the violence and many women are still exposed to abuse when they leave the relationship. Research has shown that women can be at higher risk during this time. The British Crime Survey found that 37% of women studied who had left their abusive partner reported that the violence continued. Research by Lees (2000) highlighted that women are at greatest risk of homicide at the point of separation or after leaving a violent partner.

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What does the law say?

Criminal and civil law offers important protections for individuals who are experiencing domestic violence.

If an assault has taken place and is reported, the police will investigate the crime. Where they have a power of arrest, they will normally arrest the suspect. Where there is enough evidence, and if prosecution is in the public interest, this person will be prosecuted.

The Family Homes and Domestic Violence (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 allows victims of domestic violence to apply for protective civil orders. These are called non-molestation orders and occupation orders. A non-molestation order prevents a victim of domestic violence from being molested by a partner or close family member. It is served on this person and if they continue with their behaviour, they can be arrested for breaching the order.

An occupation order specifies who can live in the family home. This, along with the non molestation order offers added protection to victims of domestic violence by preventing the abuser from living in the family home and entering other specified areas too. If the abuser ignores the order and tries to occupy the specified areas, they can be arrested for breaching the order.

» Criminal and civil law for victims of domestic violence

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What is a MARAC meeting?

The MARAC is a victim-focused meeting where highest risk cases of domestic abuse are discussed and information is shared between criminal justice, health, child protection, housing practitioners, Women’s Aid as well as other specialists from the statutory and voluntary sectors. A MARAC ensures a victim of domestic violence gets the support needed for their safety and can also help to identify serial perpetrators of domestic violence. A safety plan for each victim is then created. MARAC meetings are usually held on a monthly basis and are chaired by the PSNI.

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How are individuals identified for a MARAC?

Practitioners are required to carry out a risk-assessment. This involves asking the person who is experiencing domestic violence a list of questions to determine the level of risk posed. If the risk assessment score is 14 or more, the MARAC threshold for high-risk has been met and a referral to should be made. Once a high-risk case is identified, the practitioner contacts the MARAC administrator to ascertain whether or not a referral has already been made to MARAC by another agency. If it has not, the practitioner can make a referral. Referrals are submitted securely (via secure email) to the MARAC administrator at least 8 days prior to the MARAC.

If you have been referred to a MARAC and would like more information or if you simply would like more information, contact the 24 Hour Domestic & Sexual Violence Helpline.

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Do children experience domestic violence?

Children and young people will experience domestic violence in many ways and every experience will be different. A study by Hughes (1992) of families, who had experienced domestic violence, showed that 90% of children were in the same or next room when the violence was occurring. Studies by Leighton (1989) showed that 68% of children from families where there was a history of domestic violence were witnesses. The Hidden Victims Study of 108 mothers attending NCH family centres who had experienced domestic violence showed that 90% of children were aware of the violence, 75% had witnessed violence, 10% had witnessed sexual violence, 99% of children had seen their mothers crying or upset as a result of the violence and more than half of the women (52%) said their children had seen the resulting injuries. The Hidden Victims Study also showed that more than a quarter (27%) of the children involved had been hit or physically abused by the violent partner.

UNICEF research released in 2006, showing per capita incidence, indicates that there are up to 32,000 children and young people living with domestic violence in Northern Ireland.

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What are the effects on children?

Domestic violence can have adverse effects on children and young people and can be traumatic. It can impact upon all areas of life, including, health, education and the development of relationships. The effects of domestic violence on children are wide ranging and will differ for each child. A wealth of research has identified domestic violence as an underlying theme behind social issues such as, school dropout and exclusion, youth homelessness and young people engaging in risk taking behaviour. Children and young people have varying levels of resilience and all agencies that come into contact with children and young people who experience domestic violence, have a responsibility to build upon this resilience.

» Children and young people’s experiences of domestic violence

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How can I support a friend or family member who is experiencing domestic violence?

If your friend has trusted in you and disclosed the violence they are experiencing, this is a very positive step. It can be difficult to know how to respond, especially if you are concerned your friend might be in danger. However, there are ways you can support your friend:

  • Be there – let them know you are there for them no matter what. Keep lines of communication open and ensure they can contact you at any time.
  • Don’t judge – don’t get frustrated with you friend if they are not ready to leave the abusive situation. The decision to leave has to come from them. Be there to support them with their choices.
  • Reassure – your friend may feel they are to blame for the violence. Reassure your friend that it is not their fault and they do not deserve to be treated like this.
  • Get support – find out what help is available for your friend and share this. Encourage your friend to access support that is available. Ensure they have emergency phone numbers and contact details of organisations that can help. You or your friend can contact the 24 Hour Domestic & Sexual Violence Helpline.
  • Talk through options – talk to your friend about the abuse and explore options and choices. Try not to be judgemental if they are not ready to do anything yet.

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How can I support a neighbour who is experiencing domestic violence?

There may be many reasons you suspect this, you may have heard noises which have alarmed you or you may have seen incidents or injuries which have caused you suspicion. It can be very difficult to know what to do for the best in this situation, especially if you do not know the person well. You may feel reluctant to raise your concerns with your neighbour, you may feel it is none of your business, you may also fear that if you get involved it may exacerbate the situation.

It is important to remember your neighbour may be in danger. If you hear an incident and think your neighbour and any children living in the household are in danger, you could contact the police. If you are concerned for the safety and well being of the children, you could consider contacting the gateway team of your local Health and Social Care Trust or NSPCC.

If you know your neighbour well, you could increase contact. You may find that as trust increases your neighbour may open up to you more. You can then encourage them to seek support in the ways outlined above.

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How can I support a child or young person who is experiencing domestic violence?

If a child discloses domestic violence, it is vital that you respond in a way which is supportive and proactive.

Explore feelings

Find safe and confidential ways of asking children about their feelings and experiences.

Listen and believe

Listen to what they are saying and above all believe them.

Safety plan

Explore options for keeping safe and help them to develop a safety plan.

Inform yourself and them

Find out and know what help is available for them, and their mothers.


If you have child protection concerns, refer to the gateway team of your local Health and Social Care Trust or NSPCC.

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What help is available?

Everyone has the right to live a life free from violence. It is important to remember, help is at hand. If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence they can get help.

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I am doing a school/university project about domestic violence. Where can I get more help?

Hopefully this website will provide you with useful information and resources which you can use for your project. The frequently asked questions section will give you a detailed overview of domestic violence and will hopefully answer some of the questions you may have.

Have a look also at our up-to-date resources section. You can also check out our recent policy submissions to see how we have responded to key government initiatives and consultations.

Should you feel that you require additional information, you will also find links to other useful websites which provide a wealth of up to date research studies and information. Good luck with your project!

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