If you are afraid to show your face, how can you have a voice?

WHEN Mary Robinson was last in Ireland for a public engagement she made an impassioned appeal on behalf of the many struggling countries she visits.

She wasn’t looking for food aid or medicines or military intervention, however. She was pleading for a zero tolerance policy on violence against women.

Her comments caused a few furrowed brows. When people are being bombed, starved, oppressed, exploited or terrorised, surely anything else comes a long way down the priority list.

Robinson didn’t see it that way. She argued that to try to tackle any major problems in a society, without also addressing violence against women, was a job half done. What was the point in educating about HIV/AIDS for example, if women didn’t have the power to say no to unwanted sex?

How could food aid programmes work if the women, the homemakers, risked theft, assault and rape while walking to a feeding station? Why bother building democracy if women will be intimidated into voting the way their men forced them? Her point was that a developing country cannot hope to reach developed status if a blind eye is turned to the abuse of one half of the population — and by consequence the future generations of children which these women rear.

How then should Ireland be classified given the blind eyes and deaf ears turned to the plight of women experiencing violence here? Lest that sound like an exaggeration, the following facts speak for themselves.

Some 2,800 women and children who were fleeing domestic violence were turned away from shelters last year because of overcrowding in the country’s 18 refuges. Note there are just 18 refuges in a state with 26 counties.

Those refuges had their funding capped for four years from 2002 at a time when the cost of living, wages, insurance cover and every other bill associated with running such a facility was going nowhere but up — as was the demand for the service.

Women’s Aid, the first port of call for many women seeking practical help or advice to escape violence, received almost 26,000 calls in 2005 but couldn’t answer some 10,000 others because they simply didn’t have the manpower..

Tomorrow, the National Domestic Violence Intervention Agency will shut its doors because it has run out of funding. It was promised funding of €3 million when it was set up in 2003 but it got only €440,000.

It was meant to coordinate the various agencies and groups with a role in responding to domestic violence — health services, garda, social workers, court staff, local authority officials and the like — so that victims did not slip through the gaps in a very fragmented service — but it is apparently regarded as dispensable.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise because every agency and group that came under its umbrella has had the same feeling when it comes to domestic violence. Health workers stitch up cuts, splint broken bones and hand out pills for bad nerves and depression but unlike the high cholesterol patient they can tell to cut down on fatty foods, they can’t tell a victim of domestic violence to cut down on the beatings.

A garda who calls to a domestic violence incident or is greeted by a frightened woman in the public office of her local station can offer to prosecute but can’t provide a safe place to bed down for the night if the perpetrator doesn’t take too kindly to being ratted on.

Court staff can process an application for a protection or barring order but they can’t do it now or even in the immediate future because they have a persistent, plodding backlog that needs worked through first.

Social workers can offer to intervene but if they assess a domestic situation as being a danger to the children, and they can’t guarantee alternative accommodation or a quick passage through the courts, then all they can do is take the children away.

Local authorities can take note of a request for alternative accommodation but they can’t put a victim on a housing list unless they’re actually homeless or living in a shelter or other emergency accommodation and that brings us back to the start. There aren’t enough refuges or spaces within the refuges that exist.

The National Network of Women’s Refuges and Support Services say no woman will be left on the streets even if a refuge can’t take them because some sort of hostel or bed and breakfast will be found.

Their resolve is admirable but what shattered woman wants to share breakfast with a group of giggling girls on a hen weekend or exchange niceties on the stairs with an American golfing party? And what does she do with the children between the B that is breakfast and the B that is bed? The National Network know their B&Bs and will try to find one used to dealing with these type of emergencies. A quiet one most probably.

The very fact that the owner will be accustomed to the routine is telling.

THE need for accommodation for victims of domestic is no sudden phenomenon; it has been building steadily for years in the kind of poking, prodding, nagging way that should prompt any half-interested government into action.

What would it take to get their full interest? Deaths? Apparently not because women have already died. The experts say a woman who suffers violence in the home is far more likely to become a murder statistic than a woman who chances upon a killer without any prior knowledge of his behaviour.

So if deaths won’t do it, what will? Votes? The problem for victims of domestic violence is that they are, to the best of their ability, an invisible electorate.

Taxi drivers can bring a city to a standstill if they have a grievance they want the Government to address. Teachers can create fear of mayhem with the mere suggestion of industrial unrest.

Publicans under pressure can bring politicians running to their door with promises to fight for their survival. Even hospital campaigners and disability groups, limited though their resources and influence is, can at least grab a loud hailer and vent their frustrations through the gates of Leinster House.

If you are afraid to show your face, however, you don’t have a visible presence. If you daren’t speak out, you don’t have a voice. If you don’t carry sufficient weight to influence the situation in your own home, you don’t have the power to sway a government.

That is not how it is supposed to be in a civilised, sophisticated, fully developed country. We’re supposed to be smart enough to see those who live in the shadows, perceptive enough to hear those who speak in whispers and compassionate enough to protect the powerless.

Back in November, when Mary Robinson was saying her piece on behalf of women experiencing violence in developing countries, and welcoming the commitment of Irish aid agencies to her cause, Minister for Overseas Development Conor Lenihan backed the initiative and expressed pride that Ireland was taking a lead internationally in highlighting the problem.

“We will not be people who hide and fail to confront serious issues when they present themselves,” he said.

Time to stop playing hide and fail on the homefront too.

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