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Dublin: 19 °C Friday 31 October, 2014

Column: Raped for years, many older women can only now tell their stories

Marital sexual violence was kept a secret for decades – but victims can now begin healing, writes Bréid Morris.

Bréid Morris

AS RAPE WITHIN marriage was not criminalised until 1990, many Irish women who had been systematically raped for many years have held their secrets well.

Through a unique collaborative project between Older Women’s Network Ireland and the Rape Crisis Network, older women are now being encouraged to give a voice to their experiences of sexual violence.

Before 1990, it was a widely held belief that husbands had a right to demand sex whether their wives wanted to or not. How many women were raped night after night and conceived children born of rape and not love? When women went to the priest, they were told it was their duty. Sex was not openly discussed even with their peers and birth control was not available. Pregnancies followed one another and these women managed, through a variety of means, to hold their secret for decades.

As the result of a combination of the marriage ban and societal attitudes, many women depended on their husbands financially and with no control over their own lives it left them with little sexual autonomy. Without demur, they just got on with life. They coped, they raised children, worked and contributed to the community without recognising that they were victims of sexual violence.

They may have thought rape only happens to the young – but they were young, and behind the sanctity of marriage, with the collusion of church and state, they were sexually violated on a regular basis without recourse to complaint, investigation, retribution, restitution or more important than all of this, to healing and to love.

Of course, now we are all very grown up and open about sex – or are we? There is a level of distaste when older women and sex are mentioned in the same sentence – and when you add in rape it might be preferable to brush it under the carpet not take it out and name it for what it is.

‘The feelings of shame give rise to isolation from children and partners’

Rape is evil, it is an act of violence and a violation of human rights. The consequences of keeping this secret buried are extremely serious for the wellbeing and health of women and as the years go by, the feelings of shame give rise to isolation from children, partners, carers and family.

But the walls of silence erected over the years are beginning at last to fall. It’s true that older survivors have come from an era where sexual violence was not spoken about, societal attitudes kept women ashamed and silent, and there were no resources, meaning that people victimised in this way could not find counselling. Thankfully this situation has been rectified by the work carried out by Rape Crisis Network.

A significant benefit from the project has been the way the women involved have supported each other. The byline of the Older Women’s Network is ‘vibrant, visible and vocal’. The network promotes solidarity and OWN works to give all older women a voice. The message in the DVD is one which states you are never too old to have your voice heard in a safe environment and to start the recovery process.

OWN is a network of women and groups from all over Ireland. It is a unique organisation working on issues on ageing and gender. We work to bring about positive change and the social inclusion of mid-life and older women. We share our experiences and identify and discuss issues of concern. We share information on these issues through our website, newsletters, workshops, fora and we bring the voice of older women to bear in policy and decision-making at local, national and EU level.

Although 52 per cent of the population over 55 are women, OWN’s modest grant was withdrawn in June 2011. However this has not stopped OWN continuing with its work.

Bréid Morris is the chairperson of the Older Women’s Network. For more details on OWN visit ownireland.ie.

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