Northern Ireland news

Assembly backs calls for strategy to tackle violence against women and girls

The assembly has backed calls for a strategy to combat violence against women and girls

The assembly has unanimously backed calls for a strategy to address violence against women and girls in the wake of a double murder-suicide in Newtownabbey last week.

During a debate lasting several hours, MLAs yesterday supported an SDLP motion calling on Justice Minister Naomi Long to introduce a comprehensive strategy to address violence against women, including provision to make misogyny a hate crime.

MLAs also voted in favour of a Green Party amendment which included the introduction of standardised relationship and sexuality education in schools.

Yesterday's vote comes after Stacey Knell (30) and Karen McClean (50) were stabbed to death by Ms McClean's son Kenneth Flanagan (26) in their homes in Newtownabbey on Friday night.

Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK which does not have a dedicated strategy to tackle violence against women.

The issue was again highlighted earlier this month following the murder and abduction of 33-year-old Sarah Everard in London.

Ms Long said last week she would bring forward a paper on a strategy within days.

However, she said the issue should not be the sole responsibility of the Department of Justice and any strategy should also encompass the health, education and communities departments, co-ordinated by the Executive Office.

First Minister Arlene Foster told the assembly she supported the establishment of a taskforce to look at how a strategy can be drawn up.

The DUP leader said it "grieves me that we are still having this conversation about the unacceptably high level of violence against women and girls".

"I want to extend my condolences to the families of Karen McClean and Stacey Knell at this terrible, terrible, time of sadness and grief," she said.

She acknowledged that Ms Knell's family have asked that her death not be politicised.

Mrs Foster added that for many women their home is not a sanctuary but "one of violence".

She said women should be involved in designing any strategy.

"No woman or girl should live in violence," she said.

SDLP MLA Sinéad Bradley, who moved the motion, said the north must "weed out misogyny".

"I am particularly mindful today of the horrific events that occurred in Newtownabbey over the weekend and wish to place on record my sincerest condolences to the families of the deceased," she said.

"The images of Karen and Stacey flooding our media are simply heartbreaking, so soon after the loss of Sarah Everard.

"Many families are left grieving and re-traumatised each time another woman loses her life."

Ms Bradley said domestic abuse makes up 17 percent of all crime reported to the PSNI.

"There were 11 murders linked to domestic abuse in 2017/18 and since lockdown alone eight women have been brutally murdered in Northern Ireland," she said.

She suggested any legislation should seek to educate children and young people and stop perpetrators moving from one victim to the next.

Green Party MLA Rachel Woods said that the "lives of women and girls" depend on a strategy.

"Women and girls are losing their lives with appalling frequency," she said.

She added: "There is very clearly something wrong when it’s normalised for women to be subjected to murder, sexual violence, misogyny, abuse and harassment".

Sinn Féin MLA Linda Dillon said it was "extremely sad" that the assembly was discussing the motion in the wake of the murders of Ms Knell and Ms McClean.

Ms Dillon said statistics show that women are more likely to be victims of domestic abuse.

"We're all aware... of the under-reporting of both domestic and sexual violence against women so even the statistics we have are not right," she said.

Ms Knell is to be laid to rest in a private ceremony.

Ms McClean's funeral details have not yet been released.

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