IT’S a cold, frosty morning when I arrive at the premises of Mná Feasa in Gurranabraher, but the welcome is warm. There are smiles and handshakes all around and steaming coffee presented.
I settle down for a chat with Geraldine Johnson, assistant co-ordinator and Carole Goulding, a project worker.
I soon realise how fortunate I am to be there in the capacity of a journalist, unlike the women who usually knock on the door.
Mná Feasa is community-based project, linked to Cork Anti Poverty Resource Network, and run by trained and experienced staff to help victims of domestic violence. It all began in 1991 after a woman was pushed downstairs, broke her neck and died.
Mná Feasa was set up primarily by women who had themselves survived domestic violence.
The project facilitates support groups, as well as providing an accompaniment service, accompanying women to court, garda stations, mediation and solicitors, and also visiting women who are in hospital because of domestic violence.
It also has a schools programme, working with Transition Year students to raise awareness of healthy and unhealthy relationships, domestic violence, and to help break the cycle of continued abuse. It is delivered to both male and female students and a male colleague is present as it is important that boys also hear the message coming from a man. In addition, it has a helpline and a healthcare programme.
The project is busier than ever, with a consistent increase in women availing of the service. However, Carole explains that this is due to the fact that women know the support is there and not because the problem is growing.
“It’s always been there,” she says.
What has changed — or still needs to change — is some of the language surrounding the issue.
Geraldine winces at the words ‘battered wife’, and even the term ‘domestic violence’ is inadequate to describe the issues women are reporting at the centre.
Carole says: “We use the term ‘intimate partner abuse’ because the violence is not always in the home. But then it’s not always intimate partner violence either. The image people have is of a husband and wife, or a young lone parent with a drug dealer wearing chains and tattoos. But it’s anyone, no matter how much money you earn or what you do for a living.
We have women coming up in Mercedes but not a penny in their purse. They have the clothes, they have the life but their petrol is monitored, there’s spyware on their phones or computers. There are cameras in their lightbulbs at home.
“It goes back to power and control, which is not just in a husband and wife relationship. We’ve seen lesbian relationships, children abusing elderly parents, siblings abusing each other, bullying at work.
“It does not discriminate socio-economically,” continues Geraldine.
“We’re seeing a lot more women coming from the other side of the city, from Kinsale upwards. Barristers, teachers, guards, consultants and wives of consultants have all come through our doors.”
In 2018, 1,951 people contacted Mná Feasa and the reported types of abuse showed 21 accounts of financial abuse, 28 accounts of physical abuse, 56 accounts of psychological abuse, 15 accounts of sexual abuse, two accounts of technological abuse and 57 accounts of multiple abuse. The women tell me that the abuse they are seeing lately is fuelled by pornography, social media and paranoia from drugs.
“Revenge porn is huge,” Geraldine says. “There are videos of people in their marital bed posted online. We had a girl on the helpline one day who couldn’t go down to her child’s school because her partner had posted a video and she was mortified. It’s wrecking people’s lives and that’s a crime.”
Recently we are hearing more about coercive control as a form of abuse. This is psychological abuse in an intimate relationship that causes fear of violence, or serious alarm or distress.
With the commencement of the Domestic Violence Act last January, coercive control became an offence under criminal law. It’s a welcome step in the right direction, recognising that the effect of non-violent control in an intimate relationship can be as harmful to victims as physical abuse. However, Carole says coercive control is nothing new.
“It’s always been there. We’ve always called it mental, emotional control. For example, you might always put your keys in a certain place but then you’ll find them in the fridge. He’s making you think you are losing your mind. So you go to the doctor and you’re put on medication. It’s very isolating.
“The financial aspect is part of coercive control. You can have your bank card but you must account for everything.”
The rise of the mobile phone, seen as one of life’s greatest conveniences, is also an enemy to women in these vulnerable situations.
“I always say mobile phones are weapons of mass destruction,” Carole says. “They can track your location and something can even be installed so that your phone is mirrored to theirs.
“Or you’re in company and you get a stare across the table and know that you’ve done something ‘wrong’. We all know ‘The Look’,” says Geraldine, describing another coercive control situation. “The husband is the disciplinarian and as an adult, when you’re being disciplined, that’s control, that’s oppression.”
There are concerns that the new offence of coercive control can be difficult to prove in a court of law, but Carole and Geraldine advise gathering as much evidence as possible, for example taking screen shots of abusive e-mails and texts.
It’s also true to say that some women are not ready to do battle in court, although Mná Feasa is there to help.
“We give them advice on how to act in court, to get them to a place where they can deliver what they need to say without bringing emotion into it,” says Geraldine.
“No woman goes to court lightly, so she should be taken seriously that she’s got to this stage,” adds Carole.
Geraldine and Carole understand the guilt that women often feel when it gets to that stage; that sometimes women deep down don’t want the protection orders, they simply want their partner to stop the abusive behaviour. But not everyone in the legal process will be as understanding.
“Some of the court clerks don’t understand why women stay. They don’t understand the cycle of abuse; that no one is 100% bad; that the honeymoon period comes back,” says Geraldine.
“Women shouldn’t be discriminated against if they drop the barring order and stay with the husband.”
“Some people decide to stick with it; it’s too hard”, says Carole. “It’s not usually about her, it’s about the children. The woman thinks, ‘will I take them out of their nice school and nice house and go into a flat?’ The more you have to lose, the less likely you are to do something about it.”
Geraldine continues: “Some women will never leave but we’ll support them in the relationship and help them create the boundaries to live a healthier life.”
The ladies from Mná Feasa are adamant that the choice is ultimately with the abused woman.
“We’re a kind, caring project; warm and receiving to women. We wouldn’t make them do anything they’re uncomfortable with,” says Carole.
Geraldine continues: “We meet them where they’re at, in a non-judgemental space. We help to empower them and show alternative routes, not necessarily asking her to take them — and we support her in her decision.
“It’s very important that we make them feel as comfortable as possible and believe them.”
“Believing and listening, that’s what we do,” adds Carole. “We hear you, we believe you.”
It’s a complex issue and some women don’t even realise that what they are experiencing is abuse. Carole still recalls the very first helpline call she answered, in which she was asked, ‘How hard do I have to be hit for it to be abuse?’ Another question was, ‘He never hits me but he pushes me. Is that abuse?’ The Mná Feasa tagline is ‘You Don’t Need A Bruise To Be Abused’.
Christmas will be a time of pressure and stress in many households, but February is the busiest month for Mná Feasa, when already tense situations seem to explode. The ladies tell me that The World Cup of Italia 90 is on record as the period in which there was the most dramatic increase in domestic violence in Ireland. For those who travelled out to the matches — and stayed longer than anticipated because of Ireland’s success — jobs were lost, bills had to be paid, loans were taken out, and after that there was a spike in domestic violence. Carole mentions that it’s good when we don’t qualify.
“Every cloud…”, she says, trailing off.
With Carole clocking up 17 years of work at Mná Feasa and Geraldine in situ for the past two years, I ask what cases have stuck in their minds.
“One of the saddest was a man who came to us telling how his daughter had tried to come on maybe three occasions but her partner had found out each time and she had to cancel. The father brought her belongings into us because he didn’t know what else to do with them.”
The lady in question had died by suicide.
“That father would have moved heaven and earth to help her to get to us if he’d known. That was really sad,” Carole says.
Geraldine feels for children involved in these unhappy homes.
“There are studies that show the brain of a child that has witnessed violence has the same brain patterns as men coming back from war. They are shut down; they have fear and anxiety. They can’t verbalise it; they are unable to say what it is because they don’t know. That’s sad when you know there are children involved. They are very impressionable.”
Despite what they see, the two women remain optimistic.
“Women come to us in very helpless situations and are now doing really well. One woman got a degree in psychology and wanted to volunteer with us,” says Carole.
“There is hope at the end of the tunnel, it’s not all negative. Women are very strong. It’s not easy to make changes but it can be done. And there is hope there because there are men who are feminists, who can look at women as equals; look at them as contributors to society. They should be celebrated as well.”
It’s still cold when I step back out of Mná Feasa but the sun is shining, mirroring the hope we have just been speaking of. But another thought is swirling around my head; the statistic that one in four women will experience domestic abuse in their lifetime.
I think of the dozens of female friends I am lucky to have and realise that some of them must be silently suffering. It’s a sobering thought.
Mná Feasa Helpline: 021 4211757. Monday to Friday, 10am to 4pm. www.mnafeasa.com