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The Northern Ireland Response 

In 1782 Judge Buller held that assaults on wives were legal provided that the husband used a stick no thicker than his thumb. Today in Northern Ireland, wife assault is no longer legally permitted its recognition as a criminal offence appears to have had little impact on the widespread practice and extent of the problem which affects hundreds of women and children throughout Northern Ireland.  On average, one woman suffers a serious assault every day in Northern Ireland.  The fact that large numbers of women and children suffer persistent physical, emotional or sexual abuse within the family has been largely ignored.  Indeed, domestic violence is only beginning to be a matter for public and government concern and part of the 'public agenda'.  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. 

Some historical facts 

  • 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.

  • In the 1840's a judge affirmed the husband's right to kidnap his wife, beat her and imprison her in the matrimonial home.

  • In 1878 the Matrimonial Causes Act was passed which gave women and children some measure of protection under the law.  However the older laws survived in Northern Ireland until 1979.  For its first four years Women's Aid could have been prosecuted for harbouring a wife against her husband’s wishes.

  • It is unsurprising then that some men believe that they have a right to control the behaviour of their wives and partners and even use violence as a means of exercising control.  next page

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