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This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, but behind the galas and high-profile conferences lies a much uglier reality. Whilst open conflict in the streets is no longer a fixture of life in Northern Ireland, the same cannot be said for society at large behind closed doors, with women and girls experiencing shocking levels of violence and abuse.
New research from Ulster University suggests 98% of women in Northern Ireland have experienced at least one form of violence or abuse in their lifetime, with 50% enduring maltreatment before the age of 11, and seven out of ten experiencing some form of violence or abuse within the last 12 months. This research echoes that of the 2022 report from Northern Ireland’s Women Policy Group, which found that 91% of women think that Northern Ireland has a problem with men’s violence against women and girls.
Women are at risk of higher levels of gender-based violence during times of conflict and in post-conflict societies, yet women are only mentioned twice in the Good Friday Agreement, with no reference to gender-based violence or the lived experiences of women in conflict.
Today, Northern Ireland is statistically one of the most dangerous places in Europe for women, with femicide levels outranked only by Romania. The safety of women goes hand-in-hand with democracy; When women are safe, society flourishes.
Post-conflict reform represents an opportunity to encourage the reimagining of normalised societal structures. When it comes to the endemic levels of violence against women in Northern Ireland, this opportunity has been roundly missed. Although the barriers they pose may not always appear obvious, forms of governance based on ethno-national power-sharing tend to marginalise gender issues and exclude women. Women continue to be underrepresented in politics, so-too are the issues that impact women underrepresented in policy.
According to PSNI data, women account for 78 per cent of all victims of sexual crimes and 68 per cent of victims of domestic violence, yet it took 23 years following the Good Friday Agreement for the Northern Ireland Assembly to even agree that a strategy for tacking violence against women and girls was needed. The strategy has yet to be delivered, once again setting Northern Ireland apart from – and behind – our counterparts in England, Scotland, and Wales.
Paramilitary Violence and Coercive Control
Another factor within the Northern Irish context is the threat posed by paramilitary organisations, which continue to persist in some of the most disadvantaged areas. A 2022 report from Cooperation Ireland on a gendered analysis of paramilitary coercive control concluded that violence and coercive control against women is an intentional and organised strategy used by paramilitaries. This is compounded by a culture of silence embedded across communities, and high levels of poverty – which paramilitaries thrive on. Northern Ireland does not have an anti-poverty strategy.
Instead of being rid of the scourge of paramilitaries from Northern Irish society we watch TV ads, akin to safe driving ads, warning of the coercive control of paramilitaries, the existence of these dangerous, illegal, organisations have been normalised.
This week, world leaders will meet in New York for the United Nations (UN) General Assembly. The UN Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) agenda performs a crucial role in providing a framework to ensure the inclusion of women and gendered perspectives in peacebuilding, in addition to tackling gender-based violence.
Northern Ireland’s Women’s Coalition, a cross-community civic-lead political party founded by Monica McWilliams and Pearl Sager in 1996, has long been credited with inspiring UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace, and security, yet 1325 has yet to be implemented in Northern Ireland. It could have a transformational impact if given a chance.
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However, the WPS has been stymied by a lack of political will and ambition. For a truly transformative approach to the WPS agenda, a deeper reading of the structural and cultural inequalities in specific social contexts – coupled with an intersectional understanding considering the plurality of perspectives, experiences, and identities of women in post-conflict societies – must be used in its implementation.
As highlighted in Sustainable Development Goal 5, gender equality is not only a fundamental human right, but a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous, and sustainable world. 39 women have died violently in Northern Ireland since 2017.
Meanwhile, Women’s Aid, who deliver life-saving services for women experiencing violence in Northern Ireland, has had its funding drastically cut, along with many community-based women’s organisations.
Women make up over 50 per cent of the population, and they are being failed systemically. We can’t keep ignoring the legacy of Northern Ireland’s conflict, this isn’t the success story that politicians claim it is, violence hasn’t gone away – it’s just not as visible.