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Women and girls have the right to feel safe

Following the launch of a consultation on a strategic framework to end violence against women and girls (VAWG), Women’s Aid Federation NI’s CEO Sarah Mason discusses the need for an effective strategy in Northern Ireland.

A hot, humid early evening in June 2023 and we find ourselves standing at the front of Belfast City Hall, again. Another woman had been murdered in Northern Ireland, and Women’s Aid was attending a vigil in her memory. Across the crowds attending, we can recognise many faces of families and friends of the many other women who have sadly lost their lives. Every other month, a woman in Northern Ireland is murdered. This needs to stop; our sisters, nieces, aunts, friends, mothers, and grandmothers need to be safe.

The PSNI attends a domestic abuse incident every 16 minutes of every day, an astounding statistic. As the lead agency tackling domestic abuse, Women’s Aid services supported nearly 8,000 women last year, 250 of these women were pregnant whilst accessing this support and 6,300 children and young people were supported whilst their mother accessed support. These are not statistics to be proud of, a full refuge provision is a flaw in society, not an achievement, and this is why we need an effective violence against women and girls strategy in Northern Ireland.

When we talk about violence against women and girls in Northern Ireland in the context of gender-based violence, we are talking about crimes that are disproportionately more likely to affect women and girls, simply because they are women and girls, including sexual assault, rape, and domestic abuse. Every day we see how it is affecting the lives of women and girls, wherever they learn, live, and work. Women and girls have the right to feel safe.

On 9 March 2021, Women’s Aid launched a petition calling for a violence against women and girls strategy in Northern Ireland. At this time, we were the only part of the United Kingdom that did not have a specific strategy dedicated to tackling gender-based violence, which means that women and girls living in Northern Ireland were being let down, simply because of where they live.

This call for action garnered major public support and success with The Executive Office committing to consult on the introduction of a violence against women and girls strategy in Northern Ireland.

Women’s Aid welcomed this and was pleased that it was placed within The Executive Office rather than one government department, as in many other western countries they have adopted a co-ordinated all government approach, mandating all-government departments to play their part to bring about societal change to tackle gender-based violence. VAWG is everyone’s business and we need a joined-up approach across all of society to address this issue and impact change, from government, the public, statutory agencies, and preventative education to name but a few.

The announcement of the public consultation on the Executive Office’s ending violence against women and girls strategy in July 2023 was greatly welcomed by Women’s Aid. This is the culmination of months of meaningful co-design between all sectors of society facilitated by a dedicated team in The Executive Office. Women’s Aid was fully committed to this process, with extensive internal consultation taking place with the staff, women, children, and young people across all of Women’s Aid, ensuring the lived experience shaped the process.

Full implementation of this strategy requires brave government leadership, with prioritised, adequate funding. The ultimate challenge is that this strategy brings generational change and the sooner we begin that change, the sooner we will see a safer Northern Ireland for everyone. We cannot waste this opportunity.

Sarah Mason is the CEO of Women’s Aid Federation NI

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