Last month, I spent a morning at the West Cork Women Against Violence centre (WCWAV) in Bantry, writes Louise O’Neill.
I had met Marie Mulholland, the centre’s co-ordinator, at the Safe Ireland summit in 2016 and been blown away by her energy and ceaseless dedication to helping women in what are often desperate situations. We stayed in touch, and when I asked her if I could talk to her about her work in greater detail, she was kind enough to invite me to visit its headquarters.
As we sat around the table in the meeting room, I wanted to talk to Marie, Colette, and Susan about something that had been bothering me for a while. “Ostensibly, I don’t know anyone who is a victim of domestic violence,” I said. “Not one. And yet, if the statistics bear out and one in three women is experiencing some sort of abuse in her relationship, then someone amongst my friends or family members is suffering in silence. What can I do to help?”
Our conversation lasted for over two hours. We discussed how domestic violence is often on a spectrum, and how people sometimes minimise what they are experiencing — or dismiss it entirely — if it doesn’t fit the criteria of what they’ve been led to believe ‘real’ domestic violence looks like. The stories featured in the media can be the very worst of physical violence. The majority of women using WCWAV’s services are experiencing emotional abuse, which can also extend into financial and sexual abuse, with many women suffering from all four types of abuse.
It was frightening to hear of women who had been confined to their homes, made to question their own sanity, denied access to money or contraception, or who were shouted at and bullied mercilessly, saying, “It can’t be domestic violence, he doesn’t hit me”.
We talked about how frightening the statistics are. The majority of perpetrators are male, something we must address if we are ever to tackle this issue in any kind of adequate fashion. And it does need to be tackled.
Domestic violence affects one in three women, almost one billion globally, and yet this is a sector that is dismally under-supported and under-funded. Society seems to want to wash its hands of it, and responsibility for recovery is usually shifted onto the victims with that seemingly innocuous question: Why do the women stay?
According to WCWAV, while its clients come from varying backgrounds — there is no ‘typical’ victim when it comes to class, religion, education — they often conform to what a patriarchal society would deem the ‘ideal’ woman. A kind, self-effacing, empathetic person; someone who puts other’s needs before her own. If you add to this equation years of having their self-esteem and sense of self-worth eroded, victims are often so traumatised they feel completely paralysed, unable to imagine a life in which they wouldn’t feel afraid all the time.
I was particularly interested in how WCWAV operates, what its challenges are like compared to sister organisations in urban areas. The urban/rural divide is massive, they told me, explaining the difficulties that are faced in extremely rural areas in West Cork. There might not be mobile phone coverage. The local Garda station is unlikely to be open on a 24-hour basis. The nearest neighbour might be miles away, meaning the victim will feel more isolated — especially if she can’t drive or isn’t allowed access to the family car by her partner.
If a victim gets a barring order, this can be complicated if the family home is situated on the farm, as the abuser may need to check the cattle or get equipment; all of which necessitate him coming into direct contact with the victim. And what happens if a woman does decide to flee an abusive home, often with small children in tow? There are only six beds in a refuge in Cork city. Six. WCWAV has to frequently raid its slush fund to get these families shelter in local B&Bs and hotels, determined never to leave a victim behind.
After hearing these stories, then talking about how domestic violence intersects with mental health issues (victims are exponentially more likely to suffer with anxiety and depression) and homelessness (a survey of homeless women in Cork found that one quarter became homeless due to domestic violence), I wondered at the stamina of those who work at WCWAV.
I couldn’t imagine how they remained so positive, how they continue to offer a huge range of essential, life-saving services under such financial constraints. The three incredible woman shrugged their shoulders. They had to keep looking forward, they said, to the Domestic Violence Bill. Fundraising for a local safe house has begun. They’re seeking to establish a panel of therapists and counsellors in West Cork who work specifically with children and adolescents affected by domestic violence. This is simply the work they do, and will continue to do. They will keep fighting, on behalf of us all.
GO: I am ridiculously excited about the return of the Dublin Ghostbus Tour. Per its website, we will discover “mythological villains and real ones too, buried deep in Dublin’s gruesome past”. See ghostbus.ie
READ: In keeping with today’s column, I am going to recommend a book by Don Hennessy: How He Gets into Her Head — The Mind of the Male Intimate Abuser. Hennessy has worked with both the perpetrators and victims of intimate partner abuse and this book makes for a fascinating if sobering read.
Louise O’ Neill is the author of Only Ever Yours and Asking For It, Almost Love, and The Surface Breaks.
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