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'The silence right now is ominous' Concern for women and children trapped with abusers during Covid-19 shutdown

Sharon O’Halloran, Co-CEO of Safe Ireland, says the lack of contact from abused women and children during Covid-19 is a real cause for concern.

FOR MOST PEOPLE, the announcement of the Covid-19 lockdown over four weeks ago was a concerning, and daunting moment. It was a sobering message that this strange virus that had been “over there” for so many months was now absolutely “over here.”  

We have all had to get used to living in close quarters and working from home – if we are lucky enough to be able to do that. Schooling and entertaining children are new factors in our lives, as well as not being able to see friends or loved ones.

Losing patience, perhaps, at the endless trips to the fridge or the trails of teacups and glasses between the kitchen and the sitting room. Refereeing squabbles over who gets to sit on what chair or watches what film or uses the shower first.

It’s a difficult time for everyone.

There are very few of us not feeling some strain.   

Domestic violence is another level

It’s hard to even begin to imagine what this announcement would have felt like for women and children who knew that they were now going to be confined, full-time, with their abusers. 

They would have had a gut-wrenching fear that the prospect of living in confinement or quarantine meant the prospect of living in terror, of being trapped behind closed doors.  

For the past four weeks, we at Safe Ireland have been having regular online meetings with our 38 member services. They are all open and operating, albeit under changed circumstances. They are supporting as many women as they can whilst facing new challenges such as staff sickness, ensuring social distancing and minimising the risk of the spread of the virus within accommodation based services.

Some services have been reporting an increase in the number of calls they are receiving on their helplines and to their services.

But many others are noticing that helplines are quieter than they would expect.

We were on a call with the global network of shelters this week and the response from many was exactly the same. It is this silence that is most ominous. 

Right now, our greatest concern is that women are finding it much more difficult to make contact for support.

Confinement and isolation are huge risk factors in themselves. 

Previously, women may have contacted our services when they or their partners were at work or out of the house or when children were in school.

Those little windows of freedom are not there now.

Her world has got even smaller than it was.

Isolation, and control

We know from many of the women who have been supported by our services or who contact An Garda Síochána (whose members are doing a great job during this crisis through Operation Faoisimh) that the pandemic and the request that we stay in our homes is being used as a weapon of control.  

Controlling abusers now have a reason to insist that women and children do not leave the home.

There have also been cases where immunosuppressed women or those with health problems have been taunted by abusive partners, some of whom are deliberately refusing to wash their hands or socially distance.

Other women and children have been thrown out of their homes by abusers because they say they have had enough of them.

That’s the big differences between most of us who might just get a bit irritated at an open fridge door or a trail of crumbs or endless promises of “in a minute” when you look for help at home at the moment.

We may get irritated. But we don’t rule by domination and fear, or the threat of what women often refer to as the “or else” threat – that pit of your stomach dread of what just might happen if you don’t comply if you don’t do what he asks.

Abusers don’t suddenly become abusers because of a virus.  Domestic abuse and coercive control is a persistent and deliberate pattern of controlling behaviour over a long period of time designed to create obedience and fear. 

Coronavirus doesn’t cause abuse. Perpetrators do.

That’s why it is so important that there is a strong community response to domestic violence, particularly at this crisis time. We can be her voice when she may not have one.

Help is available

Instead of putting the onus on survivors trapped in tyrannies of control and restrictions, we can help. We can all keep vigilant, watch out for friends and family members, keep in constant contact, be alert for signals or signs of additional stress in locked down homes.

We too can call services or the Gardaí if we are concerned about our friends, our sisters, our neighbours. As the mantra of the time goes: “We are all in this together.”

With this collective community response, we can also send a strong message to abusers that they are being watched, and that their actions are not just a crime within their own homes, but are a crime that is so insidious that it appalls us all, as we are joined in solidarity.

A strong community response also needs a strong Government response. 

Safe Ireland has been in constant contact with the Government to help secure a comprehensive national response to domestic violence victims. 

The new awareness and information campaign is a welcome initiative. It is telling survivors clearly that specialist supports are open and are operating and that when they reach out, help is there for them.

It may help shatter the ominous silence. I hope it does. I hope it gives us all the confidence to speak out for our friends and our sisters. 

However, when it does, we also need funding and resources to be able to find creative ways to re-home women and to keep them safe in their homes. This is the most important job at hand as we face into more weeks, maybe months, of isolation and containment.

Information and awareness is fantastic but it has to be now matched with solid and reliable Government resourcing. When this happens, we can say clearly that we want Ireland to be the safest country in the world for women and children.

Sharon O’Halloran is Co-CEO of Safe Ireland. The Safe Ireland Covid-19 Emergency Fund can be found here. All funds raised are being distributed by Safe Ireland through our 38 member services.

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