There are almost 30 incidents a day

Caroline O’Doherty begins a two-part series looking at domestic violence through the eyes of victims

ASK any group of teenage girls how they think they would cope with domestic violence and they’ll find the suggestion that they would ever have to contend with it almost laughable.

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All girl power and spirit, the responses will be a resolute: I’d never let a man hit me. I’d be on to the gardaí straight away. I’d be out that door so fast he wouldn’t have time to apologise. He’d be out the door so fast, he wouldn’t know what hit him.

Catch up with those girls 10 or 20 years later, however, and it will be a different story. One in five of them will be in an abusive relationship or dealing with its aftermath.

At least that’s what the statistics tell us about an issue that is hard to quantify, particularly in a country where there is a dearth of studies.

The one-in-five figure came from the groundbreaking Making The Links survey carried out by Women’s Aid in 1995. A state-funded study by the now disbanded National Crime Council in 2005 put the figure at one in seven but stressed that applied to “severe” abuse.

From 2000 to 2005, gardaí said they responded to between 15 to 30 incidents of domestic violence every day.

Since 2006, collation of crime data has been handled by the CSO, which publishes figures differently, referring to domestic violence only where there are breaches of court orders, such as barring and protection orders.

Just under 1,200 such breaches were recorded in 2010, the most recent year for which figures are available.

Details of domestic violence incidents in households where no order exists, or of incidents that may accompany the breach of an order, are lost in the overall figures for assault, criminal damage and public order offences.

But the experience of just one policing area, Cork City, gives an indication of the likely overall picture.

Gardaí there say they investigated 724 cases of reported domestic violence last year, a record number, but just 77 involved breaches of court orders.

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That’s nine different incidents for every one specific breach. If that ratio applies nationally, it would mean almost 11,000 incidents of domestic violence occurring every year, or 29 a day, which tallies with those earlier Garda records for 2000-2005.

It’s undoubtedly a big problem, not that the support services need to be told that. The Women’s Aid helpline responds to more than 11,000 calls a year while almost 1,700 women and 2,140 children lived for a time in refuges in 2011, some of them for more than one period. In the same year a further 6,000 women received other forms of assistance such as advice, counselling and court accompaniment.

The problem is not unique to Ireland. According to a 2010 Council of Europe report, one European woman in four experiences domestic violence at some point in her life and between 6% and 10% suffer domestic violence in any given year.

Nor is it a product of recessionary times. Despite the extra stresses unemployment and debt places on relationships, those working in the sector will point out domestic violence was a big problem during the boom years too.

The recession has limited options for women to leave situations of domestic violence. She may not be able to get a job to support herself and if she is paying a mortgage on a property in negative equity, the option of selling as part of a formal separation is all but out.

Neither is it an ordeal exclusively suffered by women as a minority of domestic violence victims are men.

But back to our group of teenage girls. These figures might seem abstract to them so here’s another one for them to consider. According to the 2005 National Crime Council report, even if they are certain they’ll never be a victim of domestic violence, two out of five of them will know someone who is.

While one of those two believe they would go to the gardaí to report that fact, the odds are against that happening. Just one-in-12 people who know another person is suffering domestic violence actually do go to the gardaí.

What happens to paralyse the girl power and sap the youthful spirit? Today and tomorrow we look at domestic violence through the eyes of those who’ve suffered it and those who help them in an attempt to better understand.

Day two

Tomorrow we look at the options and obstacles when moving on from domestic violence — physically, legally, and emotionally — and we talk to Women’s Aid and other groups about what more needs to be done to tackle the problem.

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