‘A lot of women say we are a lifeline. That’s really heartening, that they find this a place of solace’

Jess Casey finds out what someone can expect to hear when they call Women’s Aid

‘A lot of women say we are a lifeline. That’s really heartening, that they find this a place of solace’

Jess Casey finds out what someone can expect to hear when they call Women’s Aid

DECEMBER has traditionally been a quiet month when compared to others for calls to the 24-hour national Women’s Aid freephone helpline for domestic violence and abuse.

“We know that usually in a home where there is domestic abuse, and children reside there, that the mam will do her utmost to keep things on an even keel,” says helpline manager Linda Smith.

“All the while, she’ll be walking on eggshells to try and keep a sense of peace in the house so that children have a normal Christmas Day. She will work really hard to make sure everything is in place for the children for that day because it is a time for children.

“But what we would normally see then coming into January is an influx of calls after Christmas time.”

Last year, the Women’s Aid helpline responded to 44 calls a day, received from women around the country experiencing abuse from a current or former boyfriend, partner, or husband.

The freephone line, which is operated by trained staff and volunteers, is also open to family members or friends who have concerns about a loved one. The ethos behind the helpline is that it offers women non-judgemental emotional support, says Linda.

Sometimes, women who call might find it difficult to name what is happening as abuse, she adds.

“A woman can be in many different places in one phone call,” says Linda. “She might be acknowledging on some level that this behaviour is not right, that it is deeply impacting her. At another stage in the conversation, she might say: ‘I really love this man, how could he be doing this to me? It’s not intentional.’ She might minimise it as well.

“And that’s OK, because she needs to be able to process all of the feelings in that relationship. Possibly the relationship has been going on for a long time and there is obviously a deep commitment in the relationship; they might be married, they might be engaged, they might have a child. Or there are times in that relationship where there is love, there is an equal partnership, or at least something presenting as an equal partnership. So it’s about supporting her through that and just giving her ongoing support, information, referrals to other local domestic violence supports.”

Operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the help-line is fully staffed over the festive period and into the new year.

This is made possible due to a team of dedicated staff members, along with trained volunteers, according to Laura Brennan, Women’s Aid volunteer co-ordinator.

The helpline is being covered during the holiday period mainly by staff, complemented by the Women’s Aid volunteer pool.

Linda notes:

“We couldn’t actually manage without them, they are amazing.”

One such volunteer is Mary who has been answering calls to the helpline this Christmas. She started volunteering with Women’s Aid in 2015 because she wanted to do something to help stop gender-based violence.

Speaking to the Irish Examiner before Christmas Day, she said: “My family and I will do presents in the morning, and we will eat together — but they know what this work means to me, and they are supportive.

“Christmas is a hard time for a lot of people, and there may be people who are struggling through.

Mary Donnelly, a volunteer takes a call on the 24hr National Helpline Women's Aid in Dublin. Photograph Moya Nolan
Mary Donnelly, a volunteer takes a call on the 24hr National Helpline Women's Aid in Dublin. Photograph Moya Nolan

Approximately a third of the calls made to Women’s Aid last year were from women living in Dublin, a third were from women living across the rest of the country, and a third of callers did not disclose their location.

Many initial calls to the helpline can be silent.

“Trying to find the words to talk for the first time can be quite difficult so its in those cases that we’d get the silent calls,” says Linda.

“We call them ‘test calls’ — we don’t participate in silence, we’ll talk about the service, we will say ‘this is a confidential helpline, we operate 24/7, it might be difficult to find the words to speak right now and that’s OK, you can give us a call back when you feel more able to talk about your situation or your experience’.”

Outside of these emotional support calls, a woman might also call the helpline if she has suffered an assault.

“It’s in the aftermath of that assault that she finds herself completely shocked that it’s happened, it might be the first time,” says Linda.

“There might be an escalation in terms of the severity in terms of the assault and there is still that sense of shock. That is a serious situation for us on the helpline.

“It’s about providing a safe space to express what happened, and to be with her. It’s also an opportunity for us to check around the assault and the impact of the assault and the impact of the injury, and to suggest to have her injuries checked out medically by either by going to the A&E or by a GP locally which is really important.

“Reporting to the guards as well would be explored, we would ask ‘have you been able to ring the guards?’. She may have, and she may not have, but it’s to remind her that the guards are there to support her and keep her safe.

“A lot of women would say we are a lifeline. That’s really heartwarming to hear — women who may not have any other avenue to explore what’s going on, they do find this a place of solace.”

Discover more online at womensaid.ie.

HELPLINE: The Women’s Aid national freephone helpline is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week — 1800 341900

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