In 1782 Judge Buller held that assaults on wives were legal provided that the husband used a stick no thicker than his thumb.

In the 1840’s a judge affirmed the husband’s right to kidnap his wife, beat her and imprison her in the matrimonial home. Up until the end of the 19th century, the law supported the right of men to control wives by force. When the law intervened it was to restrain violence but not to prevent it.

Today in Northern Ireland, wife assault is no longer legally permitted. Since 1975 Women’s Aid in Northern Ireland has been the primary agency working in this field providing a specialised service of support and protection to women and children at risk from violence within the home.

Women’s Aid in Northern Ireland – An historical timeline

The 1970’s… the beginning of the movement

The Women’s Aid movement in Northern Ireland is part of a widespread movement which began in the United Kingdom in the early 1970’s. The first refuge was set up in Chiswick in the autumn of 1971, as a centre where women would meet, talk and seek help. Throughout the mid 1970’s independent refuges for women and children were set up as part of an international movement. Across the United Kingdom, many of these groups came together to share their experiences and used the collective name ‘Women’s Aid’.

In Northern Ireland the growth of the movement has been dramatic. The first refuge opened in 1975 in Belfast. During 1977, Women’s Aid groups were set up in Derry/Londonderry and Coleraine. These groups formed the Northern Ireland Women’s Aid Federation (NIWAF) in 1978. The role of the Federation was to act as a coordinating and development body and also to maintain contact with sister federations which now existed in England, Scotland and Wales.

The Campaigning Years

The late 1970’s was a period of intense campaigning to extend legal protection and welfare rights for women abused by their partners. Progress did not always come quickly and the significant advances during this period were gained primarily through the efforts of Women’s Aid and abused women themselves.

Legal protection with an automatic power of arrest was introduced in 1981 although co-habitees were not included until 1983. Housing policies were amended to include abused women and children as a priority category. The financial position of women and children in refuges was improved to assist with the additional expenditure essential for living in temporary accommodation and for families moving out to set up home on their own.

The 1980’s and 1990’s… A time of regional development

By 1980 the demands on three refuges in Northern Ireland were immense. It was obvious facilities were hopelessly inadequate to meet need. The 1975 government report by the Select Committee on Violence in Marriage recommended one family space per 10,000 population. Applying this to Northern Ireland meant a minimum target of 150 family spaces or 450 bed spaces. As Northern Ireland had only 25 family places, the overriding priority for the 1980’s and 1990’s was to extend provision. Help from established refuges was crucial during this period of regional development. They provided expertise, support and advice for new groups setting up in Omagh and North Down in (1982), Newry (1983), Ballymena and Enniskillen (1984), Antrim (1986), Craigavon (1988) and Lisburn (1998).

Concern grew over the response of other agencies to domestic violence. The role of Women’s Aid in providing training and awareness to outside agencies was also developed during this period and included training with police officers, social workers, health visitors and other professionals. Prevention work in schools was established with the successful launch of the Heading for Healthy Relationships education pack in 1998.

The funding of refuges continued to place Women’s Aid groups in great economic insecurity. In 1989, with the introduction of the Homeless Persons Act, Women’s Aid in Northern Ireland was fortunate to retain funding for the core elements of the work whilst the NI Housing Executive took responsibility for accommodation costs. By the end of the 1990’s Women’s Aid was and still is the largest provider of temporary accommodation in the voluntary sector with over 100 family spaces including provision for women and children who have been victims of incest and sexual abuse.

2012 to present day

With the start of the new millennium, Women’s Aid still firmly held onto the priority of the needs of women and children coming to refuges. Whilst the availability of Women’s Aid refuges in Northern Ireland provided a powerful catalyst in challenging male violence within the home, it became clear that refuges on their own provide only part of the solution.

The introduction of the Family Homes and Domestic Violence (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 provided stronger legal protection, through the provision of non molestation and occupation orders, to women who wished to remain in their homes. Outreach support became crucial to support these women. Floating Support was developed for women who do not wish to or need to use refuges, as well as to women in temporary accommodation such as B&Bs or hostels where no support or help on domestic violence is available. This growing area of support enables women and their children to get the support they need without having to move out of their home.

During this time areas of training and preventative education also developed and the successful Helping Hands pack for children of primary school age was successfully launched and integrated into the curriculum of primary schools across Northern Ireland.

Looking to the future

The Women’s Aid movement is still developing, there is still much to be done to achieve our vision of the elimination of domestic violence. Responding to domestic violence is about addressing the needs of women and children who are at a crisis point in their lives, it is also about addressing the actions of those who use violence against their partners. Meeting these challenges will require clear policies, a multi-agency approach and a commitment to bring about change. There is greater awareness than ever before, of the need for a coordinated response.