Most of us have heard horror stories relating to the use of new media. From children being bullied via text messages and social networking sites to young people being ‘groomed' by sexual predators online, technology can undoubtedly be used for sinister purposes. So perhaps it is not surprising to hear that in Ireland, abusive partners are increasingly using various technologies to monitor and control their ‘loved' ones, particularly younger women.
According to a report from Women's Aid, a national charity that has worked in the field of domestic violence for over 35 years, women are increasingly reporting abuse such as their mobile phone calls and texts being monitored and social media and technology being used to stalk and control them.
The report, National Freephone Helpline & Support Services Annual Statistics 2010, makes for sober reading. Last year, the charity's helpline answered 10,055 calls, during which 13,575 disclosures of abuse were made.
These disclosures are broadly broken down into four categories - emotional, physical, financial and sexual abuse. Each of these categories is distressing enough on its own, but as the report notes, ‘many callers disclose that they have experienced multiple forms of abuse at the hands of their abuser'.
Altogether, there were 8,351 disclosures of emotional abuse made in 2010, however the report notes that where there is physical abuse, ‘there is always emotional abuse and emotional abuse often involves threats of physical or sexual abuse'.
"Emotional abuse is a highly effective means of establishing a power imbalance within a relationship. It is often unseen or intangible to those outside the relationship. It is more difficult to get legal protection where such abuse occurs in the absence of physical abuse and yet emotional abuse can have devastating consequences for women.
"Indeed, many women report that it is this abuse that they feel is the most damaging to their self-esteem and sense of self and, in many cases, their mental health," the report said.
Disclosures of emotional abuse in 2010 included:
-Being stalked, constantly monitored and harassed continuously by phone, text messages and through social networking sites
-Important documents, such as a passport, being hidden or withheld
-Being threatened with weapons, or threats by the abuser to kill the woman, her children or other family members
-Women never being left on their own or not being allowed to go anywhere without their husband/partner
-Women's and children's pets being intentionally harmed in front of them
-Being told how to dress.
Physical abuse disclosures meanwhile included:
-Being beaten, slapped and kicked to the point of bleeding and injury
-Being choked, strangled and stabbed
-Being spat on and scalded
-Pregnant women being beaten to the point of miscarriage.
The report notes that where there is a dynamic of control and abuse in an intimate relationship, ‘the likelihood of sexual coercion and abuse is high'.
"Therefore, while direct disclosures of sexual abuse are noted as being 588 in 2010, the reality is that a far larger number of women will probably experience sexual abuse in an abusive relationship. It is harder for women who are being abused by their partner to negotiate a free and equal sexual relationship with that partner. The sexual abuse figure includes 213 incidents of rape," it said.
In fact, sexual abuse disclosures included:
-Being raped in front of the children
-Being raped while pregnant or soon after delivery or a miscarriage
-Being coerced into prostitution.
Finally, financial abuse is described as a form of domestic violence in which the abuser ‘uses money as a means of controlling his partner'. According to Women's Aid, this is a form of abuse that is often overlooked when people consider the more severe aspects of domestic violence, ‘yet it is one of the most effective tactics used by an abuser to both control and undermine the well being of the woman they are hurting'.
"It is a tactic that abusers use to gain power and dominance over their partners and is designed to isolate a woman into a state of complete financial dependence. By controlling the woman's access to financial resources, the abuser ensures that she will be forced to choose between staying in an abusive relationship and facing extreme poverty," the charity explained.
Financial abuse disclosures in 2010 included:
-Women not being given money to buy essentials for themselves and their children, including food and medication
-Women being forced to pay the abuser's debt
-Women being forced to give all their wages to their partner
-The abuser jeopardising a woman's employment.
The report shows that 74% of abusers in 2010 were ‘male intimates' - in other words, a husband, ex-husband, partner or ex-partner. Over half (57%) of abuse disclosed to the charity was perpetrated by a current husband or partner, with marriage remaining the most common context for abuse.
However, according to Margaret Martin, director of Women's Aid, there is a common misconception that abuse only occurs in older and more established relationships, where women are married or living with, and/or have children, with their abusive partner.
"Our experience and national and international research shows that young women are also at risk from violence and abuse from their boyfriends. In a national survey on domestic violence, almost 60% of those who had experienced severe abuse in intimate relationships first experienced it when they were under the age of 25," she explained.
She also highlighted the fact that leaving a relationship ‘does not always end abuse'.
"Almost a fifth of women continued to be abused, stalked and harassed by former partners. These women disclosed how they are bombarded with texts and calls often telling them, in explicit detail, how they will be attacked or even killed. Some women disclosed that their current or ex-boyfriends were stalking them on social networking sites," she said.
Meanwhile, children were also found to be extremely vulnerable in these situations. Last year, there were 1,658 specific incidents of child abuse disclosed by callers to the Women's Aid helpline. These incidents included hitting the children, sometimes with household items, sexually abusing them and constantly shouting in their faces.
However, the report pointed out that in addition to these 1,658 incidents, in another 2,946 calls, it was directly disclosed that children were living in situations where their mother was experiencing domestic violence.
"In the majority of these incidents, it is likely that children will have witnessed or heard the abuse of their mother. Witnessing domestic violence is identified as a form of emotional abuse of children," it said.
Furthermore, some 5% of callers disclosed that access visits were being used by abusive ex-partners to abuse the children of the relationship. Incidents of abuse during access visits included threatening to, or actually, abducting children and children not being fed during their access visits.
However, Ms Martin emphasised that there is help available.
"Over the past 35 years, countless women have gone on to lead safe and fulfilling lives with the support of Women's Aid," she explained.
In fact, the report provides details of some the support services available to women. For example, last year, 323 women received 430 support visits from Women's Aid support workers, while these workers also accompanied women to court on 164 occasions. Two-thirds of these women had availed of this court service previously, while one in three were first time users.
The vast majority of cases where Women's Aid accompanied women to court either dealt with protection from abuse or child-related issues, such as maintenance and custody. Protection from abuse comes via domestic violence orders, such as a barring order, in which the abuser is barred from the family home or a safety order, where the abuser is prohibited from further violence, but there Is no obligation for him to leave the family home.
However, Ms Martin noted that in 2010, Women's Aid continued to hear from women ‘dismayed and frustrated' at being ineligible for domestic violence orders.
"During 2010, 13% of callers disclosed abuse by current non-married partners. Many of these women will find themselves unable to access domestic violence orders, for example, if they never lived with their partner, even if they have a child in common.
"In addition, 10% of callers experienced abuse from a former non-married partner. Again, this is a group of women whose safety needs are not being met as they are often ineligible to apply for protection under the Domestic Violence Act 1996," she explained.
She pointed out that when women in these situations try to access the justice system to end the violence, ‘they find that they may fall outside of the law'.
Ms Martin insisted that the right to legal protection from domestic violence needs to be available ‘to all intimate partners regardless of marital status or whether or not they have ever lived with their partner'.
For more information on Women's Aid, click here
The Women's Aid national helpline is available every day from 10am to 10pm and calls are free of charge. Tel: 1800 341 900.
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