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Two years on: Ireland is 'failing to act in spirit' of agreement to help women escaping domestic violence

The pandemic has led to a surge in domestic violence – but Ireland has less than one third of the number of refuge spaces that it should have.

Image: Shutterstock/Yupa Watchanakit

HUNDREDS OF WOMEN suffering domestic violence during Covid-19 restrictions were left without refuge because the state has not been “acting in the spirit” of an international agreement that it signed to protect such women, according to human rights advocates.

It comes even though the Covid-19 pandemic has led to a surge in domestic violence; new figures show that gardaí received approximately 43,000 calls to respond to domestic abuse incidents last year, a 16% increase from 2019. 

However, Ireland currently has less than one third of the number of refuge spaces that it should have, under a treaty the then-government signed up for exactly two years ago today. 

One frontline worker described Ireland’s current situation as “a 19th-century infrastructure for a 21st-century issue”. 

Amid much fanfare in 2019, the Irish Government ratified the Istanbul Convention, a human rights treaty drawn up and overseen by the 47-nation Council of Europe, which pledged that each country which signed up would provide adequate refuge accommodation for women fleeing their abusers.

The move followed a specially-convened Cabinet meeting held to mark International Women’s Day, after which then-Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar called for an end to the “epidemic” of violence against women. Charlie Flanagan, the then Minister for Justice, said the Government was sending out “an important message that Ireland does not tolerate such violence”.

Under the Istanbul Convention, governments across Europe could decide to provide either one refuge space for every 10,000 adults living in Ireland, or they could provide one refuge space for every 10,000 women living in Ireland – once other services are in place to help abused women.

Ireland chose the option providing the lesser number of refuge spaces, one space per 10,000 women in Ireland (instead of one space per 10,000 adults) – making it the only European country claiming it needs to provide a smaller number of refuge spaces, according to the Council of Europe. 

Roderic O’Gorman, the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, confirmed in the Dáil that the reason Ireland chose to provide the lesser number of refuge spaces is because “community-based organisations and outreach supports are in place alongside refuges.” 

Even with this lesser number, Ireland should have 490 refuge spaces per head of population, yet it currently has 141 – less than a third of what was promised, according to figures provided by Aoibhneas, a Dublin-based refuge.

Dr Hayley Mulligan, the Violence Against Women Officer for the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI) with specific focus on third level education, said the government is not acting in the spirit of the convention and “failing in their duty of care to these women and children”.

Dr Mulligan, whose work focuses on the proper implementation of the Istanbul Convention, said that the requirements are the minimum standard for human rights.

“Human rights law is so different, it’s not like criminal law. It relies on the good spirit and will of the nation-state to actually implement it fully,” she said.

Dr Mulligan said that by not doing this, the Irish Government was “not acting in the spirit of the convention.” She added:

What you see is a lot of action by individual ministers, but what is needed is a whole government integrated approach.

Social Democrats TD Holly Cairns said there was no justification for the Government to calculate the number of refuge spaces in such narrow terms. She said: “They’re saying that other services are sufficient, but it’s not. We’re obliged to have one space per 10,000 people, not women, so they’re blatantly misinterpreting the recommendations and therefore, providing 50 per cent less than what is recommended.”

On the frontlines

Several domestic abuse services also said the government was not living up to its commitments on the issue, or doing enough to protect women suffering domestic abuse.

They pointed in particular to the Government’s decision to opt to provide the least number of refuge places under the Istanbul Convention when the country does not have sufficient services in place to help abused women.

special-cabinet-meeting-for-international-womens-day The special Cabinet meeting on this day in 2019 when the convention was ratified Source: RollingNews.ie

Article 23 of the Convention recommends that specialised women’s shelters should be available in every region, but there are currently nine counties in Ireland with no shelter at all, according to Dr Mulligan. 

During the Covid-19 pandemic, when the country experienced a surge in the incidence of domestic violence, 1,351 women were denied a place of refuge due to a lack of space, according to Safe Ireland. 

Unlike other years, when women fleeing violent partners could turn to friends and family for help, last year many ended up trapped for months with their abusers because of the Covid restrictions.

Stop Domestic Violence In Ireland, a group set up to support victims of domestic abuse says the Covid pandemic has simultaneously exposed the pervasive nature of the problem and the Government’s failure to adequately address it.

Priscilla Grainger founded Stop Domestic Violence In Ireland with her daughter Ainie in 2016 to help victims reclaim their lives. Their organisation is run on voluntary donations and offers advice to women seeking assistance, including help preparing their cases for the family law courts.

Last March, Priscilla opened the doors of her own home to a family looking for refuge.

“There was a mammy and three children in a car, it was very cold. I had a mattress, so I put her into my room, let her sleep in my bed and had the mattress on the floor for the children.”

It’s a situation Priscilla Grainger found herself in twenty-two years ago as she tried to leave her abuser with her infant daughter. When she phoned a refuge in Dublin, she was told there was a seven-month waiting list.

“I just wanted to find a place of safety but there was nowhere”.

Last year Safe Ireland and Women’s Aid partnered with Airbnb to provide emergency accommodation. However, Dr Mulligan said that it is unacceptable that domestic violence services are reliant on the private accommodation market.

‘CRiTiCALL’, an initiative set up by Dublin City Volunteer Centre, Safe Ireland and other volunteer centres around Ireland during the pandemic to support victims of domestic violence, is asking people to volunteer their holiday homes as a safe haven.

“My biggest concern is that there isn’t enough accommodation for the homeless of Ireland, so what chance do the victims of domestic violence have?”, Grainger said.

Exit plan 

Women trying to flee their abusers need to plan their exit, but this becomes even more complicated when the abuser has an addiction to alcohol, drugs or gambling, Priscilla Grainger said.

“You’ve got to remember you’re dealing with sociopaths. They’re narcissistic, they don’t care. They woo you; they love you; they get bored of you, they trade you in and they dump you”, she said.

The pandemic has seen a surge in the number of women contacting domestic violence services. Aoibhneas, a refuge based in Dublin, saw a 125% increase in calls to their helplines. There was a 43% increase in calls to the Women’s Aid helpline and a 71% increase in visits to their website.

According to Safe Ireland, during the first six months of the pandemic 3,450 women and 589 children contacted a domestic violence service for the first time.

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Refuges had to use their already limited spaces as self-isolation units, and some could not be used at all in order to facilitate social distancing. Aoibhneas chairperson, Melanie Farrell, said their accommodation space was hugely impacted and the organisation took on additional accommodation on Baggot Street through a partnership with the YWCA to ensure continuity of care to women and children.

Refuges are short-term accommodation for women in emergency situations that need a place of safety. They are usually small apartments with a bedroom, kitchenette, washing facilities and a shared communal space.

Saoirse Women’s Refuge has two temporary emergency accommodation spaces in Tallaght and Rathcoole in South Dublin. The refuges can house 11 families altogether, but during the pandemic, the one in Tallaght had to be used for self-isolation, reducing the number of families they could support.

When a woman first contacts Saoirse for help, they speak to a support worker who will assess the level of danger they are in and whether there is an immediate risk to life.

When a woman arrives, she is assigned a key worker, a childcare support worker and an outreach worker, who will discuss with her what she needs, and assess whether she requires medical attention.

Trish Coyle, the manager of the refuges, said that there is a much higher level of violence now and women are living in greater levels of fear. She said more weapons are being used than when she first began working at Saoirse in 2006.

“By the time they get to come to the refuge, they have endured phenomenal abuse,” said Ellen O’Malley Dunlop, the acting CEO of Saoirse. She said that on average, a woman will experience serious physical abuse 35 times before she will seek help.

She said that the issue of domestic abuse “falls between the stools all the time” because there is no one government department responsible for tackling it.

“It is totally underfunded, and sadly the policy is with the Department of Justice, the implementation and delivery of service is with the Department of Children and Social Affairs, and there are then other departments like the Department of Health and Education. All of these departments have a role in responding to this really serious problem in our society,” she said.

O’Malley-Dunlop believes there needs to be one department that is solely responsible for holding the other departments to account when it comes to policy surrounding domestic abuse.

“We have a window at the moment because it’s being highlighted, but the worry is that it will fall off the agenda agaifn when something else comes up.”

Dr Mulligan said that the NWCI has continuously called for a single government department on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, but that there has been no coordinated effort on their behalf.

“We need a dedicated minister. Even with the new cabinet, we were disappointed that there wasn’t even a junior ministerial position afforded to address domestic violence, sexual and gender based violence.”

Lisa Marmion, Safe Ireland’s Services Development Manager, said that there hasn’t been resources put into this issue both in terms of the physical as well as the wider infrastructure and as a result,

“We have a 19th century infrastructure for a 21st century issue.”

Tusla is currently undertaking a review of emergency accommodation nationwide that is expected to be published between April and June of this year. 

Need help? Support is available 

  • The 24/7 National Freephone Helpline for Women’s Aid is 1800 341 900. There is an online chat service on womensaid.ie operating mornings and evenings and a text service for people who are deaf and hard of hearing on 087 959 7980.
  • SafeIreland.ie offers a list of 38 domestic abuse services in towns across Ireland.
  • For urgent assistance, call An Garda Síochána on 999 or 112.

About the author:

Shauna Ledwidge, Natasha Lynch, Jane Moore, Kinga Piotrowska and Carenza Rock

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