When a woman calls into the Belfast Lisburn Women’s Aid office, no matter the time, Noelle Collins says someone is ready to help.
Collins, the office’s area manager, explains that an operator identifies if the caller is in danger and, if so, she’s immediately taken to the closest safe space. It’s a service that Women’s Aid — the pre-eminent organization addressing domestic violence in the United Kingdom — has had to provide more and more.
In some instances, that’s one of 106 beds in the Belfast Lisburn area; in others, it’s an emergency tech room Belfast Lisburn Women’s Aid keeps open for middle-of-the-night calls.
In any case, Collins said, a woman in danger is told to grab her kids, their papers and get out of her home.
“It never ceases to surprise me what women bring with them,” Collins, who’s been with Women’s Aid for 40 years, said. “You know what I mean? Because they’re in trauma. And they grab things. Like, one woman brought her weapon, but forgot her children’s birth certificates, but that was what was important to her.”
Once a woman and her kids are in the care of Women’s Aid, their risk is assessed and Women’s Aid meets their needs — whether that’s relocation, financial help, refuge or medical care — in both the immediate moment and the long term.
Domestic violence crime rates in Northern Ireland have steadily climbed since the Police Service of Northern Ireland started tracking that data in 2004, according to Superintendent Lindsay Fisher. Last year’s Police Service of Northern Ireland report contained the highest numbers of domestic violence crime ever recorded in Northern Ireland, more than 19,000.
The response to domestic violence is the latest in a series of women’s rights issues Northern Ireland has struggled to address. Whether it is a lack of reproductive rights, education on relationships and sexuality, a gender pay gap or high poverty rates among women, the region has historically trailed far behind Europe and the rest of the United Kingdom.
Despite this history, the region took action in 2021 following a surge in domestic violence during the Covid pandemic. In March of that year, Northern Ireland passed legislation against domestic violence. While the new legislation spelled progress for women, advocates said it was too slow and timid.
An ‘unprecedented’ crisis
According to Northern Ireland’s top cop, 2020 and 2021 ended up being a perfect storm of factors to increase the incidents of abuse.
“New home schooling, not being out to work, people losing their jobs, worrying about the health and well-being of family members — all of those things add to the stressors in a home setting,” Fisher said. “I think not being able to get out, get away from that, and do your normal business, whether that’s your work, going to the gym, whatever that happened to be — that was all essentially removed from so many families for such a period of time, and I think those years stand out for that reason. It’s unprecedented.”
It also tested the capacity of nonprofits that have tried to provide services to women.
Pre-Covid, Training for Women Network rarely stepped outside of its mission — training and educating women to join the workforce — according to Chief Executive Officer Norma Shearer.
When Shearer’s trainers did have women report domestic violence, it was easy to pass their contact along to organizations that dealt with that specifically, like Women’s Aid.
But during Covid, Shearer said, things changed.
“Very soon my staff — who would be trying to do a lot of training online — became very aware of discovering when there was someone else in the room with them, or someone was in there threatening,” Shearer said.
She said because of this, the Training for Women Network engaged in activities it never would’ve before the pandemic, like delivering food parcels to women.
The efforts came as long-stalled legislation finally moved through the devolved parliament in Belfast and the Assembly passed the first-ever legislation against domestic violence.
The Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Act received royal assent on March 1, 2021. For the first time, Northern Ireland began going after not just specific acts of violence, but also so-called coercive control. Women’s Aid defines coercive control as “an act or patterns of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim.”
Rachel Woods was a member of Northern Ireland’s legislative assembly while the act was being debated. She said it took the government six years to take these steps, often slowed by the fact that divisions between unionists and nationalists had collapsed the government at Stormont.
When the justice committee finally started crafting the bill, it was initially modeled after the strongest legislation in the United Kingdom – Scotland’s. But as it moved through the Northern Ireland Assembly, it began to shrink. Woods said by the time it reached the final stages it was a “lean” version.
But Rachel Powell, a lobbyist with the Women’s Resource and Development Agency, said the bill ended up being stripped down to get it to pass. Woods agreed, pointing to provisions for protection of children that were weakened from earlier versions of the bill.
“It was just interesting to see what wasn’t in our bill, but was in the Scottish legislation — again, the so-called gold standard,” Woods said. “Why are we stripping back the gold standard for Northern Ireland? What was the point of that?”
According to Powell, the legislation was stripped back because some parties in the assembly are opposed to working toward women’s equality. Namely, she said, the Democratic Unionist Party — at the time Northern Ireland’s largest party and a conservative unionist one — often blocked progress on women’s rights
Advocates continued to fight for stronger legislation, but the process, they said, took its toll.
“It was very frustrating when you have women sharing their stories of abuse and being ignored,” Powell said. “But at the same time, we’re still in a better position than we were a few years ago.”
The assembly passed other bills following the Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Act that are meant to help victims of domestic violence, including a Protection from Stalking Bill and a bill Woods sponsored that gives paid leave for at least 10 days a year to domestic violence victims. These both passed the assembly — in February and March, respectively — just before it collapsed again, triggering Northern Ireland’s most recent election at the beginning of May.
Continued ‘troubles’ for women in Northern Ireland
Passing the Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Act was a big step in NI. But according to a number of women’s sector organizations, the country is still behind the rest of the UK in addressing a number of issues women face.
Women’s Aid and the Women’s Resource and Development Agency said they’ve been filling gaps left by the legislation, including training the police on recognizing coercive control.
While advocates say domestic violence is simply one area that demonstrates how women in Northern Ireland have fallen behind women in the rest of the United Kingdom, it’s not the only one.
Recently, Westminster stepped in to decriminalize abortion in Northern Ireland. But women still struggle with accessing that service, and representatives from the Northern Ireland Commission on Human Rights said doctors in the country still aren’t trained on how to provide abortions.
And, according to the Northern Ireland Commission on Human Rights, the Equality Act of 2010 that protects people’s rights on the basis of sex throughout the rest of the UK does not apply in Northern Ireland. The country has yet to pass legislation that matches this standard, too.
So, while legislation on domestic violence finally passing the assembly offers some progress, organizations like the Women’s Resource and Development Agency say there’s still more work to be done.
“It is absolutely fantastic that we’re finally getting this legislation,” Powell said. “But it is still so far behind the legislation in the rest of the UK.”