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'My own experience of domestic and sexual violence changed everything about me'

Niamh Ní Dhomhnaill has said there is still a lot of stigma when it comes to speaking publicly about domestic and sexual abuse.

Niamh Ní Dhomhnaill (file photo).
Niamh Ní Dhomhnaill (file photo).
Image: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

NIAMH NÍ DHOMHNAILL has said more needs to be done to remove the stigma of speaking out about domestic and sexual violence.

Ní Dhomhnaill, a psychologist in clinical training with Trinity College Dublin, has been an advocate for survivors of domestic abuse since speaking out about her own experience.

She waived her right to anonymity following the conviction of her former boyfriend for rape and sexual assault. Magnus Meyer Hustveit was initially given a wholly suspended seven-year sentence but this was increased to 15 months in 2016 after an appeal by the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Speaking at the virtual launch of Women’s Aid 2019 Annual Report today, Ní Dhomhnaill said it took her some time to come to terms with the fact that what she was experiencing was abuse.

“My own lived experience of domestic and sexual violence I think changed everything about me irrevocably. When I think back to that time, I think I was just scared and anxious all of the time.

“I didn’t know what I would be coming home to. I never knew what I was going to do wrong. I never knew what response that would prompt.

“And it was really difficult for me to keep myself safe and being consistently confronted with someone who said that they would take their own life if I left. I found myself trying to navigate some kind of pathway of safety and really not knowing how.”

Different types of abuse 

Ní Dhomhnaill said that in the past she viewed domestic violence as purely physical.

“So if I was being bullied, I didn’t see that as abuse. If I was being frightened or intimidated, I didn’t see that as abuse. If I was, you know, nearly hit but not hit, it didn’t count because it wasn’t physical contact.”

Ní Dhomhnaill said she was initially unable to use the word ‘rape’ to describe what happened to her.

“It was incredibly scary to say that for the first time. I didn’t use the word, rape, I just couldn’t. I didn’t want to see myself as a victim.

“So I remember telling a friend at the time that he’d been having sex with me while I was asleep. And she immediately said that that’s not sex, that’s rape, and I knew it … but it was so hard to hear because language is really important and I just wasn’t ready to view it in those terms.”

Stigma 

Ní Dhomhnaill said the shame and stigma still attached to speaking out about sexual, physical or emotional abuse prevents some people from coming forward to report or seek help.

She said she still feels some shame and was afraid that speaking out might change how people view her or affect her career, asking: “Will I be seen as less of a psychologist, less capable of doing my work because of what happened to me?”

Ní Dhomhnaill said she hopes to use her own experience to help other people who have been through similar events.

She added that she, or any other survivor, should not be defined by the actions of their attacker. 

More than 20,000 disclosures of abuse were made to Women’s Aid in 2019, with women reporting being beaten, strangled, burned, raped and threatened. There was also a spike in calls in recent months during the Covid-19 pandemic.

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Órla Ryan

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