Abuse of Women in Conflict Zones
It is only in the last couple of decades that the world has focused on the horrific levels of violence perpetrated against women in times of war. Although women and girls have been the victims of sexual violence and other forms of aggression dating back several millennia, their plight has generally tended to be relegated to the footnotes of historical accounts.
However, the appalling accounts emerging from conflicts over the past 20 years has brought the horrors of this abuse to global attention. Surveys carried out in Rwanda in 1999, some four years after the 1994 genocide, revealed that 39% of women reported having been raped with 72% claiming they knew someone who had been raped. In former Yugoslavia, it was estimated that at least 20,000 women were sexually assaulted. A 2000 study in Sierra Leone calculated that between 50,000 and 64,000 internally displaced women were probably sexually assaulted. Almost 20% of 2,000 Burundian women interviewed by the UN had been raped with 40% declaring they had witnessed or heard about a minor being raped.
Domestic Abuse in Ireland
These are extremely disturbing and distressing statistics and warrant serious international attention and action. However, it is not only in times of conflict that women are subject to violence, sexual assault and abuse. One has only to look at the situation in Ireland to realise the extent of unwarranted abuse women are subjected to in everyday life, let alone in a situation of war. Most worryingly of all, this abuse is frequently perpetuated by their partner.
For most of us, our home or residence is a place of refuge, where it is possible to shelter from the world outside. Leaving the cares of daily life and work behind, one is able to take time out and relax, secure in one’s own personal living space. However, for tens of thousands of women around Ireland, this haven has been destroyed by their partner.
Research conducted by Trinity College Dublin and published in the British Medical Journal, 2002 showed that almost 40% of Irish women who had experienced a sexual relationship have been subject to violent behaviour on the part of their partner.
As many as 1 in 5 Irish women have been the victim of domestic violence by their current or former partner or spouse. Moreover, this figure only includes those cases that have been reported. It has been estimated that a woman will be assaulted by her current or previous partner on average 35 times before contacting the police.
Given such a high incidence of domestic violence it is almost certain that we all know someone who has been subjected to such violence. However, it is also most likely that the woman concerned has been unable to tell us and that we remain unaware of her situation.
Forms of Domestic Abuse
Domestic abuse can take a number of forms including:
- Physical Abuse
This can consist of being punched, hit, shoved, kicked, beaten, and assaulted with or without weapons, choking and strangulation as well as being stabbed.
- Sexual Abuse
This may involve rape or being forced to engage in certain sexual acts to which the woman objects. Further examples of this abuse include being obliged to look at sexually explicit material and not being allowed to use contraception.
- Emotional Abuse
Includes being shouted at and intimidated as well as having one´s freedom curtailed. It can also involve assaults on one´s property and pets as well as being subject to threats on one´s safety or life.
- Financial Abuse
Can occur when the perpetrator of abuse refuses to pay bills, confiscates the victim’s bank cards and monopolises her financial correspondence, refuses to honour court-ordered payments and even refuses to allow the victim use certain house appliances such as the heat.
Therefore, domestic abuse is not limited solely to physical violence. Indeed, many women find that the other forms of domestic abuse just as terrifying as physical abuse and often more damaging to their self-esteem. However, they are more difficult to identify and certainly harder to prove. Furthermore, the majority of women suffer from more than one type of abuse at the same time.
The Impact of Domestic Abuse
Even pregnancy is no guarantee of safety for a woman. It has been shown that women are often abused during pregnancy and that can result in many instances in actual or threatened miscarriage. Some 1 in 8 women surveyed in a Dublin maternity hospital reported having experienced domestic abuse during pregnancy. Domestic abuse can also impact negatively on any children caught in the middle, who frequently also run a higher risk of being mistreated or molested by men who abuse their female partner.
Domestic violence occurs across all socio-economic categories in society and is therefore a constant feature of contemporary family life throughout Ireland. At the same time, research by the Task Force on Violence (1997) highlighted the fact that the pressures faced by women being trapped in poverty, having physical or mental difficulties, being socially excluded even further aggravates and complicates the impact of the domestic abuse they have suffered.
Perpetrators of domestic abuse tend to be deliberate, manipulative and unrelenting in their victimisation of their partner. By engaging in repetitive intimidation and abuse, they are able to break down their wives and girlfriends, often inculcating serious doubts in their victims with respect to their own self-worth and esteem and even effectively alienating them from the support of their family and friends.
When this reality is added to the high level of `stigma´ and general unwillingness on the part of society to seriously and openly confront the reality of physical, mental and sexual abuse of women, the obstacles faced by women in leaving their partner and/or reporting their partner to the authorities is rendered even more difficult.
Male and Female Victims
It is important to acknowledge that not only women are subject to domestic abuse and that for male victims this can be a highly traumatic and devastating experience. Furthermore, it is essential that responsive and targeted service support and counselling is made available to support them.
Although, women are far more at risk of domestic abuse and serious assault than men, considerable numbers of men also suffer at the hands of their intimate partner. As a 2005 report conducted by the National Crime Council and Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) showed 15% of women (one in seven) and 6% of men (1 in 16) had been abused by an intimate partner. In total this translated to somewhere in the region of 213,000 women and 88,000 men having been the victim of serious abuse by their partner.
However, in general, the severity of abuse experienced by women was greater. They ran twice the risk of being seriously injured and require medical treatment and were a staggering ten times more likely to have to stay over in hospital as a result.
For further information on the reality of domestic abuse of women in Ireland, please visit Women´s Aid at http://www.womensaid.ie/. Women´s Aid are launching their annual report – Women’s Aid National Freephone Helpline and Support Services Annual Statistics Report 2009 – on Wednesday 23rd of June as well as an updated website at www.womensaid.ie.
This is part 1 of a two part series. In part 2, we will look at what can be done to tackle domestic abuse in Ireland and the crucial role an organisation such as Women´s Aid plays in assisting its victims.
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