Violence in the home remains one of the most serious forms of abuse facing Irish women today, writes KITTY HOLLAND , on the eve of International Women’s Day
IT’S THE “most serious human rights abuse facing Irish women, and people don’t want to get involved,” says Eimear Fisher, executive director of Cosc – the National Office for Prevention of Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence.
“In an estate of 100 houses, in 15 of them will be women who have lived with severe domestic abuse. In six will be men who have lived with abuse. It is estimated just 10 per cent of those suffering will access services. So, while 7,500 women accessed domestic violence services in 2009, that’s 75,000 women experiencing abuse in any one year. It’s huge.”
Safe Ireland, which co-ordinates services for women experiencing domestic violence, has seen a 43 per cent increase in the number of women accessing its services over the past three years.
“The number of women our 41 refuges were unable to accommodate in 2009, because they were full, was 2,431 – the highest ever. Last year’s figures are set to be higher again,” says the NGO’s spokeswoman Catríona Gleeson. “With those women there would have been over 3,000 children.”
To take just three refuges last week: the Adapt refuge in Tralee, Co Kerry, was full all week. Ten women and 23 children were accommodated. No one had to be turned away. “We were lucky,” said manager Anne Marie Foley.
In Co Louth, the Dundalk Women’s Aid refuge was also full, with five women. One woman could not be accommodated.
In Galway, Cope Waterside House, the only 24-hour refuge in the west, was full all week with six women and nine children. “We were unable to accommodate seven women with nine children,” said manager Wendy Heuston.
Key to addressing the pressure on refuges must be getting help to women before they have to flee their homes, and key to this is breaking the taboo around domestic abuse.
“It is a difficult subject, which people feel it’s too difficult to broach,” says Fisher. “Our research finds 88 per cent of people would be reluctant to intervene, they would be reluctant to ‘get involved in other people’s business’,” says Fisher. “People said they would intervene if they witnessed abuse, or if it was a relative that was being abused. But not otherwise.
“People don’t want to step into the intimate arena of someone else’s relationship. They don’t want to seem to judge the woman and her choices. And of course they may feel they’ll make things worse. For the woman, she may still love the man, there may be children and there may be economic dependence.”
Says Gleeson, there is often huge social pressure on the woman not to “break up the family”. She may feel shame at being in the situation. And there is still a real sexism in Irish society that says “she made her bed and must lie in it”.
Women experiencing abuse often minimise it to themselves, they don’t believe their case is bad enough to report, or they don’t think they’ll be believed. They repeatedly dismiss incidents as “one offs”, or make excuses for the man and blame themselves.
Because many women in the situation cannot clearly see what is happening to them, says Gleeson, “it is critical that people who suspect it’s happening, name it as unacceptable.
“As citizens we have to say domestic violence is not okay. As long as silence surrounds it it will remain pervasive. With knowledge and disclosure it will wither.”
‘I DON’T THINK MOST PEOPLE WOULD KNOW. I HAD NO BLACK EYES’
LIZ, (43) LIVES JUST OUTSIDE DUBLIN, and is a professional working in an office environment. She has close friends, a supportive family and would describe herself as confident and intelligent.
She also describes herself as having been “very, very alone” for 15 years, while her husband punched her, raped her, threw her to the ground, dug his nails into her flesh, criticised her in front of family, threatened to kill her, terrorised her and stepped on her stomach when she was five months pregnant.
Her husband’s family told her to “get tougher” with him, while her own family, though comforting, “just didnt know what to do. And of course, I wanted my marriage to work. In the early years I thought I could show him how to treat someone you loved.”
Her family doctor told her he’d help, but didn’t, while social services told her her case was “not bad enough” to warrant intervention.
From a middle-class family, she was introduced to Michael when she was 21 by a mutual friend. “He was very personable, social, a real charmer and seemed to come from a very close, loving family. I’d say there were signs before we got married. He’d get over-the-top angry for no apparent reason. I’d be outraged and he’d apologise. On the day of the wedding my gut feeling was not to go through with it. I knew it wasn’t the thing to do but I put it down to cold feet.”
Almost immediately after marrying she was scared of him. “He became very aggressive, shouting if I disagreed with him about anything. He’d twist my arms, dig his nails into my shoulders. He’d slam doors in my face. If a man stopped to talk to me I’d be accused of flirting.”
At times he agreed his behaviour was unacceptable and would promise to change. “He wasn’t this monster all the time. It was very confusing for me. He could be very loveable. With other people he was affectionate, helpful, emptying the dishwasher. I was told by a colleague once that I didn’t have a husband, I had a godsend.”
The violence – physical and emotional – got worse. “He’d put me down about my weight in front of friends, but make it seem like good-natured slagging and he’d say I was too sensitive. For the first three years I was just in shock at the situation.”
“His family’s way of dealing with it was to ignore it. His brother went looking for him, brought him back to the house and told him not to do it again. Excuses were made for him. He was under financial pressure, they said. And I was told to toughen up with him.”
After three years she left and went to her mother’s with their two-year-old son. Her mother and sister were “very supportive”, but “hadn’t a clue what to do”. After three months she went back as she “needed support looking after our son”. The abuse continued.
“The worst was when I was pregnant with our second child. After a row about him staying out all night he got me down on the ground and stepped over me, stepping on my stomach. I was pregnant and a dog in the street wouldn’t have done what he did to me, to a defenceless baby in the womb, to his baby.”
He would also emotionally and physically abuse the children, putting them down, shouting in rages and on occasion hit them. “Over the years he’d agree to stop. He’d stop for a while.” Only when her second son, whom he “constantly picked on”, was assessed as having psychological problems did she see that the abuse was affecting her children. The solution put to her was that she should cut down on work, to be at home more – never that Michael’s presence in the home should be looked at.
In the end, she found Teach Tearmainn, a support service for women living with domestic violence, in Co Kildare. “Walking in those doors, it was the first time I felt validated, believed, taken seriously, safe, in 13 years. On that first day they told me I had a safe place to go.”
She got advice and counselling and began to feel stronger. She got a protection order from the courts and one weekend when he was away she called him and told him not to come back to the house as she needed a break.
The two are now legally separated. “I was being mentally and emotionally tortured and maybe people knew there was something wrong, but I think I was a good actress. I don’t think most people would know. I had no black eyes. What I’d say is you don’t have to come between them, but be there for the woman. Tell her you’re there for her if she needs to talk.”
It was her husband’s sister who gave her the number for Teach Tearmainn. She herself had grown up in a violent household, and ended up in violent relationship.
“It’s a cycle that goes on and on, if we’re not willing to look at it, talk about it and say ‘This is not tolerable’.”
‘HE TURNED INTO A COMPLETE BULLY’
AVA (46) HAD A HAPPY MARRIAGE until her husband announced, one morning six years ago: “There is no us any more.”
“From then he became a completely different person. I found out later he had another woman. I think he decided in his head that he didn’t want to lose anything.
“He wanted this woman, he wanted the house and the kids and he wanted me to just disappear. He turned into a complete bully.”
They had been married for 13 years and had four children, including a three-month-old daughter.
“He started going out straight after dinner, not coming home until after midnight and sleeping on the couch. I was in shock. He had been my hero, my knight. I wanted us to go to counselling and he wasn’t interested. He said I should be in counselling. I had these diaries I kept and he stole them and he started saying I was an unfit mother and had to leave the house.”
There were a number of incidents where he took the children away for weekends and wouldn’t allow her to join them, even insisting on taking the infant while Ava was still breastfeeding. Once he took them away having excited them about a “big surprise”. “All the kids came back very upset. He had brought them to his new house, to meet his new partner and the big surprise was a new television.”
Another time she went to the local HSE office to ask why she had not yet received a respite cheque for their son (who has a disability) to find her husband had cashed it weeks before.
He insisted she and the children all be psychologically assessed; he refused to return the children’s passports, so Ava had to go to court two days before she was due to fly abroad to have them returned; he had to be escorted from a mediation hearing by staff as he was becoming too belligerent and he has refused to pay maintenance, despite a court order to do so, and he now owes her €17,000.
It was through counselling that she was referred to the outreach service of the Mayo Women’s Refuge, in Castlebar.
“This is a totally emotionally abusive guy who just wanted Ava to disappear. The more he couldn’t get his way the more abusive he became,” says Carmel Burke.
Ava is now still in her family home with her children and they spend time with their father. “He still refuses to converse with me. It’s all by text and he still changes plans without consulting me. I try to have as little as I can to do with him. If I tried to work out why he does all this I’d drive myself daft. For my own sanity I have to just leave him to it.”
‘I WAS SO IN LOVE I FORGAVE HIM’
MAEVE (28), A BRIGHT, BUBBLY WOMAN from a wealthy family in Co Mayo, fell “madly in love” with a man when she was 16, a man who would later throw her against walls, throw her to the ground, bruise her arms, make her walk up and down a beach three days after giving birth “to lose the weight”, who told her she was “disgusting” and who made her “terrified” to have family visit or to see friends.
He was sporadically violent from the beginning. “One night he walked into the bar where I was with my friends and a lot of them were fellas. He walked out. I ran after him and he grabbed me, threw me up against a wall and threw me to the ground. There was blood all down my face and I couldn’t open one of my eyes. I was brought to hospital.
“He told me it was my fault, that if I hadn’t been there with all those fellas it wouldn’t have happened. I thought he might be right, that it was my fault. And I was so in love I forgave him.”
When she became pregnant with their second child, “he got really bad”.
“He’d grab me and hit me . . . On one hospital visit a midwife asked me what the bruises were on my arm, but I told her myself and a friend had just been playing. She told me years after she hadn’t believed me.”
After having the baby, Maeve became depressed and lonely, and asked his mother for advice. “She told me to bear with it. I think she had had to put up with being badly treated by her husband.”
Her own mother had died years earlier, while she did not tell her father about the abuse. She had lost touch with her friends as he wouldn’t let her see them.
It was her father in the end who helped her escape. She left with the two boys and got in touch with Mayo Women’s Refuge. She is now back at college and has a home with her sons. They see their father every second weekend and she is back in touch with her friends.
“I look back now and in some ways I feel sorry for him. Everything he used to accuse me of, of being selfish, unfaithful, lazy – he was talking about himself . . . It took getting away from him to see that.”
Next month, Safe Ireland will publish a guide to helping a woman who is suspected to be suffering from domestic abuse. It advises: approach her in an understanding, non-blaming way; Tell her that no-one deserves to be threatened or beaten, despite what her abuser has told her. Support her as a friend. Be a good listener. Allow her to make her own decisions, even if it means she isn’t ready to leave the relationship.