‘I walked into the bathroom, looked at myself in the mirror and I was bleeding and I realised it wasn’t love.’ ‘Elizabeth is not alone, either in the abuse she suffered nor in the realisation that she needed help: almost 800 people, including 301 children, received support from Irish domestic-violence services on just one day last year, a new report shows.’
When Elizabeth began her relationship with Dan, she was a young 20 year old student with a love of life and an endearing naïve nature. Like many girls her age, she ‘just wanted to be given attention and have a nice relationship. He had so much confidence and gave me so much attention and affection and always had me as his centre of focus.’
Margaret Martin, the director of Women’s Aid Ireland tells me that the warning signs in an abusive relationship can be difficult to notice because they’re quite subtle. For Elizabeth ‘it started gradually with him telling me that I was upsetting him when I saw my friends because I was acting like a “teenager”, he was 30 and we were living together so I believed him. He was very convincing and would tell me that people were annoyed by my friendliness and that everyone was taking advantage of me.’
The annual “one day census” from Safe Ireland shows that on Tuesday, November 4th last year, 120 women and 166 children were accommodated in refuge centres. These statistics, however, only give us an insight into the women who are seeking help, what about those who are suffering in silence and those who are essentially hostages in their own homes?
Margaret Martin tells me ‘the main reason women are staying in abusive relationships is because they have children, they will be trying to protect them and maintain some sort of reasonable and normal life for them.’ The obvious changing of schools and overall disruption on both the child’s mental and physical health can be a huge turn off for mothers when questioning how and if they should leave.
Although women are trying to protect their children here, a child who witnesses domestic violence can be far more damaged than a child changing school. Unicef released a report that said ‘Children who are exposed to violence in the home may have difficulty learning and limited social skills, exhibit violent, risky or delinquent behaviour, or suffer from depression or severe anxiety.’ For most parents, a dominant dread is witnessing their children grow up to inherit their bad habits and faults, but if children are observing this violence in the home, they’re more likely to display or copy that behaviour in their own relationships.
It’s gotten to the point where women are waiting for their children to graduate from school or college before leaving. Margaret said ‘We would get women who ring and say look, where I am now is absolutely terrible and this is what I’m thinking of doing, and they’ll have a plan. It’s terrible that some people have to live like that.’
Elizabeth was lucky in this respect, although Dan’s violent and controlling conduct caused her to withdraw from those closest to her, her family never gave up on her. Unlike many girls in this situation, she had a place to go and a supportive family waiting.
One of the key warning signs for women in abusive relationships is loss of independence, so mothers and women, who are often financially dependent on their spouses, feel they don’t even have the option.
The fact that some women are becoming more hesitant to leave their abusive partners or file a barring or protective order, because of both their children and fundamental fear, is causing some Garda to become frustrated at their lack of control over the situation. Retired Detective Noel Mooney told me, ‘when we would get a call for domestic violence, we’d take the mother and children away and they’d sometimes sleep at the Garda station because there wouldn’t be any room in the refuge centres. The next day we’d ask them if they want to file a report and they’d usually say no. They don’t want him to be put away because he’s probably their source of income and as a mother she has to think about providing for her children.’
The Irish legal framework on domestic violence is mostly contained in the Domestic Violence Act 1996 – 2002. However this Act seems to be falling short of protecting women against their abusive partners in Ireland today. Safe Ireland released a report which said the Act’s major weakness is that ‘it introduces a victim to a legal process through a policy of arresting an alleged abuser regardless of the victim’s wishes, however, it refuses to take that legal process to its logical conclusion: that is a trial and possible conviction, unless the very same victim agrees to the prosecution.’
Women who do file for a barring order or a protection order will be waiting 18 weeks in Dublin before it goes to trial, which creates a potentially dangerous situation for the victim. Margaret tell me ‘if you’re terrified and frightened and the police say we’ll be able to do something about that in 18 weeks , that’s not going to feel good or safe for you.’
Unfortunately, this isn’t the only hurdle preventing women from leaving. On February 16th, Safe Ireland released shocking new domestic violence statistics which showed that fourteen requests for accommodation could not be met per day. Margaret Martin said ‘in the country we have about one third of the refuge space that we need. There are more women and children turned away then accommodated on an ongoing basis in Ireland.’ And even when women are accommodated, what happens next? The service only provides temporary accommodation, not fulfilling the long term needs of the women and children who are often left homeless after leaving.
Refuge centres that don’t have enough space often send women and children to B&Bs, however there, they can feel more unsafe than they do at home. Margaret said ‘at least at home they know where he is and it’s more predictable, whereas in the B&B, there’s nothing stopping him from finding her.’
The Irish system seems to be failing women from all sides in the fight against domestic violence. From the legal system to the lack of refuge centres, women are becoming trapped and imprisoned in both their relationships and hostile homes.
Organizations like Women’s Aid and Safe Ireland, offer outstanding support to women and children who are suffering. They aim to protect and educate women about the warning signs and also offer 24 hour phone services, which goes a long way in these situations. However, these services are not going to win the fight alone. Ireland’s legal system needs to get on board and change, before any real work can be done.
After a full year of unfathomable physical and emotional abuse, Elizabeth finally left. ‘When I got home from work one night he told me I was cheating on him and how I was a bitch and he punched me in the face. I saw how skinny I was and how much I was crying and bleeding. Someone doesn’t hurt you if they love you. I said a prayer and I slept on the couch that night. He kept coming in and telling me he was sorry but I held my ground and I left the next morning. I never saw him again.’