Psychological abuse as well as financial abuse will now carry a criminal penalty following new legislation put into force today by the Department for Justice.
The Director of the Foyle branch of Women's Aid, Marie Brown, said the new domestic abuse laws that have come into force today will do more to help women get away from abusive relationships.
New legislation brought in by the Department of Justice now rule that abuse within a marriage or a partnership extends beyond violence and includes coercive control which includes both financial and psychological abuse.
Justice Minister, Naomi Long, stated that the new laws were a “milestone” with the potential for abusive partners to face longer sentences if found guilty.
She said: “Domestic abuse is wrong and will not be tolerated, not by our community and crucially now not by the law.
“No longer will those that abuse a loved one, be that a partner, former partner, or a close family member be able to evade justice. Abusers will be punished.
“The changes brought forward will help many people, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, age, class, race or religion.
“This is particularly important given that anyone can be a victim, just as anyone can be an abuser.”
Marie Brown says that the new legislation may see domestic abuse figures rise – but it is one that would be welcomed as more people will be encouraged by the law change to seek safety.
She said: “Domestic violence is very high in the North-West – we have the highest rate per head of population in Northern Ireland.
“On the whole, Northern Ireland has had 32000 cases of domestic abuse this past year – a figure that is probably higher when you think of those women who don't report their abuse to the police.
“The official figure is just the tip of the iceberg but it's a case of one woman every 17 minutes in Northern Ireland reporting domestic violence. Last year, we dealt with 999 women through our own services.
“We know the new laws will probably see those figures rise because women are now aware that what's happening to them is now against the law.
“But we would welcome those increases in order to get people to safety.”
Brown says that coercive control by the way of financial and psychological abuse has long been a issue – as long as physical domestic violence itself – and is pleased that the Executive has brought in this new legislation to finally help those who have suffered such abuse.
She added: “All of these factors have been in domestic violence for a long time. When we talk about those factors, the levels of control can be quite severe and serious.
“Financial abuse ranges from stealing a partner's money or giving them no access to their own money and no control over spending. Fraudulent things as well have happened such as signing things on their behalf so this is quite serious.
“It doesn't just happen to families in (financial) hardship. You can look at a couple and think that they're well-off but if the woman has no financial autonomy then there's financial control there.
“Or if he has a gambling habit, she can't leave because she's frightened. Increasingly you're seeing men gamble away and taking control of assets where she has no say. They're always trying to scramble and save a bit for themselves to try and move away from the relationship.
“Using (coercive) control ensures that an abusive partner doesn't have to be violent. If somebody won't comply then they (the abuser) threaten to do all sorts to them and/or their children.
“It's always been as aspect of domestic violence as long as domestic violence has been around. A lot of women have suffered because their abuse would not have been recognised in court as they've had no physical injuries. So, this legislation is welcome.
“Psychological abuse shows a pattern of behaviour that begins over time – there's like a grooming element of it. It starts by isolating the person, isolating her from family and friends in order to get the person on their own and they in turn become much more vulnerable and, therefore, much more compliant.
“I've witnessed coercive control where (an abusive partner) has taken away – by hiding them or refusing access to them – medication that the person is dependent on.
“There's other forms too such as trying to convince someone that they're mad, or they don't know things – trying to confuse them.
“Controlling what a person wears is another form – even sometimes what they eat and comments on a person's weight can be used as a form of control.
“All of this comes to the point where the person is groomed into thinking that all of this is normal – which we know it isn't.”
The examples that Brown has come across during her work with Women's Aid show that the threat of violence alone is abusive enough with some affected saying it is worse than being hit.
She continued: “Somebody just doesn't have to hit somebody but they can put a knife under their pillow and say to their partner, 'I may or may not kill you tonight'. Or something like, 'If you leave, I will kill you' or 'If you leave, I will find you'.
“That's quite a common thing when women try to get out (from an abusive relationship). Not allowing them to go to classes, to mix or socialise, accusing them of having an affair – things that they aren't doing – can be used as coercive control as well.
“Other examples include locking them inside the house – even locked inside the bedroom in the house. There's many stories over the years that still continue to come in to us with all these elements in place.
“Many women come in to us – and even to the police – and say, 'I don't know why I'm here because he's never hit me'. Then they go on to relate the most horrendous stories.
“I remember one woman saying, 'It's a relief when you get hit because they play with your mind'. Another woman said to us that with the physical stuff, you get over it but it's the psychological stuff that they do takes a long time to get over.”
If you, or anyone you, know has been affected by the issues outlined in this article, log on to: https://foylewomensaid.org/get-help/
Alternatively, you can call Women's Aid Foyle on: 028 7141 6800 Monday to Friday between 9am to 5pm.
For out of hours, call the Domestic & Sexual Abuse helpline (line is open 24 hours a day) on: 0808 802 1414.
The PSNI can also be contact on 101 for non-emergency calls and 999 for emergency calls.
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