Tackling 'pandemic' of domestic violence

One in five women in Ireland still experience physical, sexual or financial abuse by a husband or partner, writes Audrey Ellard Walsh, who talks to local domestic violence support groups, ahead of the international 16 Days of Action campaign, which begins this weekend
Tackling 'pandemic' of domestic violence
Picture: Stock

Today, Saturday, marks the beginning of ‘16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence’, a global campaign dedicated to raising global awareness of domestic violence and abuse.

While the campaign is global in reach, figures from Women’s Aid show that Ireland fares poorly when it comes to keeping women and children safe. Research shows one in five women in Ireland have experienced emotional, physical, sexual or financial abuse by a current or former partner, while half the women murdered in this country are killed by a partner or an ‘ex’.

The charity, which runs a variety of services including a 24 hour helpline, responded to 15,952 calls in 2016, and reports that that 16,946 disclosures of domestic violence against women were made through a variety of contacts with their service last year.

In Cork, support services for victims of domestic violence are reporting year on year increases in the numbers of clients seeking their help, with all ages and backgrounds represented on their books.

Carole Goulding, a project worker with Mná Feasa, reveals that contacts to their service are well on track to exceed last year’s numbers, already passing the 1,659 received in 2016 and 1,483 the year prior.

Women of all ages seek help from Mna Feasa.
Women of all ages seek help from Mna Feasa.

The community project, which has a reach across the city and east Cork, operates a range of services, including support groups, and a helpline which is live five days a week. As Ms Goulding explains, there is no “classic victim”.

“We see women of all ages, from 18 up, and our oldest client is 85 years of age.

“You name the profession, we’ve seen the woman from it. It doesn’t matter what you do for a living, what your partner does for a living, or what your address is. Anyone can be affected.”

Mná Feasa deal primarily with cases of abuse between spouses or partners, but the issue is more widespread than that.

“The perception is abuse is mainly between a husband and wife but it’s bigger than that. It’s partners, siblings, work colleagues.

“A growing issue we are hearing about is child to parent violence. A couple of years ago this would have been elder abuse, but we are hearing now about 14, 16 year olds abusing their parents.”

The common perception that domestic abuse is predominanly physical is also challenged by current trends.

“In our project, physical abuse is actually what we see the least. Emotional and verbal abuse is a huge problem.

“It might be a case that the man is controlling the finances so that she has no money of her own, or tracking what she is doing.

“We could have women in our support groups afraid not to answer the phone.

“This controlling behaviour all takes away a woman’s confidence and self-esteem.”

Similar behaviours and experiences are reported widely among domestic abuse services, with Marie Mulholland, co-ordinator of the West Cork Women Against Violence Project, referring to the issue as “a pandemic”.

“I’ve seen cases where financial control is massive. A woman is not allowed have a car or if she does have a car, he knows how much petrol is in the tank, so he can monitor her movement.

“He’ll know exactly how far away the supermarket is so if she drives to a support meeting, or to see her mother or sister, he’ll know she deviated.

“We had a case recently where a woman came from a very well-to-do family but never had access to any money of her own.

“He bought the groceries so he even decided what the family ate.”

Ms Mulholland says that these are all experiences that clients have had, and multiple clients at that, so clear patterns emerge.

There were 1,195 contacts with West Cork Women Against Violence Project last year. Picture: Stock
There were 1,195 contacts with West Cork Women Against Violence Project last year. Picture: Stock

Headquartered in Bantry, the service assisted 204 clients in 2016 through 1,195 total contacts ranging from phone calls to counselling sessions and court accompaniments. This was a steady increase, compared to 1,056 contacts with 180 clients in 2015 and 889 contacts with 167 clients in 2013. Their operating model is one of empowerment, supporting any decisions that women make, on their own terms.

“People often ask why a woman doesn’t just leave but when you look at the social, economic and emotional hurdles it can be very difficult,” Ms Mulholland argues.

“He constantly tells her how she is not good enough and this chips away at her and takes away her confidence. It makes her feel that this is all she is worthy of, that this is all her fault.

“We hear women say that they think it’s their responsibility to fix him or help him, or he threatens suicide if she leaves.

“That’s huge pressure to put on someone’s shoulders, and that is what imprisons women.”

The housing crisis is also a factor, with women left with no option to leave, particularly if they have no access to their own money.

“On top of that,” Ms Mulholland continues, “international statistics show that the most dangerous time for women is when they are trying to leave an abusive partner.

“All of the stats show that the violence gets ratcheted up when she tries to leave because she is taking back her power, and he may feel “if I can’t have you, no-one can”.

Ms Mulholland believes that domestic violence will continue, unless fundamental societal changes occur.

“There is a massive gender disparity in Irish society. Women are not valued politically or legally — you only need to look at the representation of women in government to see that.

“Little girls are being told that being pretty and getting married are the most important things and domestic violence is not regarded as a serious incident in this country.

“It’s not seen as a criminal offence, it’s seen as family law and women don’t even get legal aid.

“If you have a system whereby this issue is not treated seriously, it is unsurprising that it goes on.”

Mná Feasa place an emphasis on educating young teens about healthy relationships in an effort to prevent problems before they occur.

“A large element of Mná Feasa’s work is delivering talks to secondary school students, both boys and girls.

The impact of domestic violence on children is the focus of a talk in West Cork on December 12. Pictures: Stock
The impact of domestic violence on children is the focus of a talk in West Cork on December 12. Pictures: Stock

“We always say to young people that these are all worst case scenarios, but it’s important to be prepared. We tell them that relationships are important and it’s good to have a partner, but if you get into trouble you can reach out to people.”

The key message, Ms Gouldng says, is “there is always hope”.

Women’s Aid have launched their ‘Change the Conversation Campaign 2017’ to mark the 16 Days international campaign.

They hosted an international Day Opposing Violence against Women Seminar on November 24, in Dublin, on femicide and domestic violence. International and Irish experts covered the issues of domestic homicide reviews, risk assessment and domestic homicide and criminal law. They also launched the Women’s Aid Femicide Report 2017.  The report showed that eight women have died violently in 2017. Six women killed in their own homes. Overall, 216 women have been killed since Women’s Aid Femicide Project began in 1996 (an average of 10 women per year). 16 children have died alongside their mothers. The report dispels the belief that women are at high risk from ‘stranger danger’. 88% of women murdered in Ireland

killed by a man known to them. 56% of killers were current or former intimate partners.

Separation doesn’t always mean safety for women and children. It can be a time of high risk for women experiencing domestic violence with 24% of women being killed by a former partner.

Risk factors for intimate partner femicide not just previous physical, but also emotional abuse and controlling behaviour.

On average, intimate partners convicted of manslaughter are likely to serve almost 3 years less than other male perpetrators.

Women’s Aid calls for greater recognition of risk factors, for multi-agency risk assessment, the introduction of domestic homicide reviews.

For more see see www.womensaid.ie


ABOUT THE WEST CORK WOMEN AGAINST VIOLENCE PROJECT

West Cork Women Against Violence Project operate a freephone helpline 1800 203 136 every Tuesday from 10am to 5pm, every other weekday morning from 10am to 1pm, and afternoons whenever possible from 1pm to 5pm.

Their office line 027 53847 hours are 9am to 5.30pm Monday to Friday and can be used to make an appointment for a one-to-one meeting or a phone call with a support worker.

The service also have a drop in service at their main office in Bantry and a regular Outreach clinic at Skibbereen on Fridays from 10am to 2pm.

Next month they will host a talk by Dr Stephanie Holt, associate professor in the School of Social Work and Social Policy at Trinity College Dublin. Dr Holt, whose research primarily focuses on a range of issues pertinent to domestic violence, will speak about ‘The Impact of Domestic Violence on Children’. The talk will take place in the Maritime Hotel, Bantry on Tuesday December 12 at 10am.

See westcorkwomensproject.ie for more details.


ABOUT MNÁ FEASA

Mná Feasa also operate a helpline, 021 4211757, staffed by trained volunteers Monday to Friday from 10am to 4pm.

I addition to this service, they host a weekly support group on Tuesday from 7pm to 9 pm and Thursday from 10am to 12noon.

Trained facilitators run the groups which provide a safe and confidential environment for women to speak about their experiences.

Further information is available at www.mnafeasa.com.

ABOUT WOMEN’S AID

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, Women’s Aid can help. They operate the 24hr National Freephone Helpline 1800 341 900, open seven days a week. All services offer free, confidential support to women and their children who are experiencing domestic violence in the Republic of Ireland.

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