'He takes every opportunity he can to undermine and control me'

'He takes every opportunity he can to undermine and control me'

Women's Aid said women were sometimes taking risks in making contact with support services, such as waiting until "the dead of night" to make calls, or running a shower and using the sound to camouflage a call. File photo

The number of women reporting domestic abuse has surged by 43% during the pandemic.

Women's Aid received more than 30,000 disclosures of abuse in 2020, and of those, almost 6,000 involved a child victim — the huge volume of contacts was described as "the tip of the iceberg".

The organisation said its support workers received 24,893 disclosures of abuse against women and another 5,948 disclosures of child abuse in the context of domestic violence, resulting in 30,841 disclosures in total. 

The abuse included women saying they had been strangled, had their teeth knocked out, as well as forms of coercive control. 

According to the report, launched today, 148 women were abused while pregnant and 28 women suffered a miscarriage because of the abuse.

The contacts were made with Women’s Aid frontline services and come after repeated warnings that extended lockdowns due to the Covid-19 pandemic have created a nightmare environment for women and children trapped in vulnerable and violent domestic situations.

Disclosures of abuse to Women's Aid rose 28% last year, with emotional abuse the most common form, up 36%. 

However, there was also a 24% rise in reports of physical abuse and a 41% increase in sexual abuse. 

Disclosures of abuse of children increased 24% and there were 510 disclosures of digital abuse and cyber-stalking, including being secretly recorded by the abuser or being threatened with having intimate images posted of them online without their consent.

There was also a surge in contacts made during lockdown periods, and according to the report: "Some women told us that they were so suffocated by their abuser that they could not get enough time away from them to seek a domestic violence order to protect themselves and their children. 

"Women living with abusive partners also reported the added distress of working from home, with an abusive partner who is there all day."

Last year, Women’s Aid heard 3,007 reports of women abused by a former male partner or spouse, 515 disclosures of women being abused when facilitating a child access visit and 114 reports of children being abused during a child access visit.

Women's Aid CEO Sarah Benson claims the current family law system is repeatedly failing those who need help and is - in some cases - a "tool for the abuser" to continue to torment their partners even after they leave them. 

She said this was due to a "pro-contact culture that does not consider risk to both the non-abusing parent or the child and which benefits domestic abuse perpetrators".

There was a huge surge in the number of women seeking help during lockdown — 81% of users of the helpline were first-time users of the service, and Ms Benson said: "We know that a third of women will never tell anyone, never mind a specialist service."

Ms Benson said women were sometimes taking risks in making contact with support services, such as waiting until "the dead of night" to make calls, or running a shower and using the sound to camouflage a call. 

Women's Aid was able to extend its instant messaging service so people could make contact in silence, but even then some women had their phone use monitored or even had tracking devices placed on their phones.

Ms Benson also said the family law system is in urgent need of reform.

While work on an overhaul of the system is continuing through the government-appointed Family Justice Oversight Group and the Family Courts Bill, Ms Benson said the pandemic was an opportunity for change, adding: "There needs to be a root and branch embedding of this understanding of domestic violence".

Harrowing stories of abuse

Sharon, 42, is mum to 12-year-old Sam and six-year-old Ava. She was working from home during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

During the first lockdown she found the situation increasingly more difficult and desperate as she was locked into the house with her abusive husband all day and night and had been unable to hide or escape, even for short amounts of time. Prior to the lockdown, her husband was aggressive and controlling but since the lockdown, he was becoming more volatile.

“I feel like I’m being monitored by my husband 24/7," she said. "He takes every opportunity he can to undermine and control me. He constantly intrudes on my work calls and conversations and I feel like I’ve no choice but to put up with his unacceptable behaviour all day, every day, because I’m literally locked inside the house with him. It’s unbearable and I constantly feel frightened and vulnerable. 

One evening, I was preparing dinner, cooking the children’s favourite meal, when he suddenly attacked me and started to choke me. 

"I was so afraid; I didn’t know what to do. I was too scared to ring the guards because I didn’t want the children to get upset and I was worried about what my husband might do when released by the guards. 

"But, I decided to ring Women’s Aid for support and they helped me in securing emergency refuge for both myself and the children. I’m so thankful for their support.” 

Another service user, Emma, endured years of domestic violence and abuse and left the relationship with her children. According to Women's Aid: "She continued to be in fear of ongoing threats from her ex-partner despite moving to a location he was unaware of. 

"She became a service-user on the High-Risk Support Project. Later that year her ex-partner found out where she was staying and approached her. He would arrive at her home and shout outside, threatening to kill her.

"As part of the High-Risk Support Project, the Gardaí assisted her immediately and arrested the perpetrator. Her ex-partner was found to have a dangerous weapon in his possession. He was charged with multiple breaches of a domestic violence order and with possession of a weapon and was sentenced to prison."

Sarah Benson, CEO of Women's Aid, said the pandemic was an opportunity to embed awareness of domestic abuse and coercive control in all areas. File photo
Sarah Benson, CEO of Women's Aid, said the pandemic was an opportunity to embed awareness of domestic abuse and coercive control in all areas. File photo

As for issues with family law, Samantha, 36, said: “I know the differences when the car door closes. Sometimes he can’t even be on his best behaviour for five minutes in a car park. I know the kids feel on edge in his presence. Even if my four-year-old begs me not to go, I can’t help him as it’s the law”.

Ciara, 29, said: “For me it’s the uncertainty and the anxiety that it brings. There is always aggression. It can be looks, mutters, throwing children’s bags or rage. He used to roughly handle our youngest as a baby and would rev the car when I bent down to pick the bags up that he dumped. 

"The silent treatment was a relief most of the time however, it was also used to create fear. Turning his back when I ask a question or to give information about a child who is ill. Rage and loss of control is terrifying. I’ve learned to stay emotionless and engage only when I must.”

  • Women’s Aid 24hr National Freephone Helpline 1800 341 900, 7 days a week. Instant Message Support Service www.womensaid.ie, 7 days a week at fixed times.

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