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Column: Domestic violence is an issue we're encouraged not to think about in Ireland

Following the horrendous Magdalene revelations, can we continue to pretend to ourselves that abuses aren’t happening right here and now in our society and in our homes, asks Paula McGovern.

Paula McGovern

IN THE AFTERMATH of the Magdalene report last week there followed an outcry of questions – how could this have happened? Who let this happen? What’s wrong with society, the state, that people could be abused and yet nothing was done to help? Is it the fault of institutions that allow abuse to happen or do we all have a part to play? One commentator wondered what other abuses are going on right now that we are pretending to ourselves isn’t happening.

The reality is that male violence is the primary cause of death of women aged 15-44. Women worldwide are more likely to die or be maimed because of male violence than because of cancer, malaria, war and traffic accidents combined. Of the female murders in Ireland since 1996, half of the resolved cases were committed by a husband, ex-husband, partner or ex-partner.

Social systems

The issue of domestic violence is virtually invisible in Ireland and we lag far behind other western countries in how we deal with it in our social systems. It’s not even enough to say that it is hidden here – it is an issue we are actively encouraged not to think about. In Ireland domestic violence is not listed as a cause of homelessness, which means that women struggle to get housing places even if their lives are severely at risk. Domestic violence is not recorded within gardaí/HSE protocols as a form of abuse which means it can get hidden under an anti-social issue or similar. Both of these factors means it can be difficult to record its prevalence and helps to keep the issue under wraps.

All domestic violence related court cases are held in camera so we don’t hear what happens at court and consequently there is little accountability. And when a woman is murdered by her partner, domestic violence is rarely named in the reporting of a case even when there is a long history of violence. It is not linked to the wider issue of domestic abuse and the case is reported as a singular event.

It is worth noting for example that 30 per cent of women who experience domestic violence are physically assaulted for the first time during pregnancy. In any event asking for domestic violence to come out of the shadows helps all victims, male and female.

Minimal debate

All of these factors do help to cloak the issue in a veil of secrecy or silences what minimal debate there is. In effect, victims are doubly victimised – by an abuser and by a system that does not want to acknowledge their experience.

We haven’t, as a society, yet learned to maturely name domestic abuse and adequately deal with it.

Last week I heard from a woman who went to her local garda station on advice of her doctor. She has been abused by her partner for some time with the abuse steadily getting worse and more violent. Her doctor is fearful for her life. At the garda station she was told that they didn’t have the resources to deal with her and to wait until there was a more serious incident to come to talk to them. She asked them were they saying she had to go home and wait to be beaten up again for something to happen. She was effectively told yes, but they said they were sorry there was nothing they could do and that her case wouldn’t go anywhere in court without more evidence so she would be wasting her time.

I spoke to a local authority official about another case he had come into contact with at the housing placement desk. He said that he knew that sometimes women wanted to leave home because of domestic violence, but he couldn’t ask the question because it wasn’t on the forms.

Turned away

He said that there was one woman in particular he had dealt with that seemed edgy, upset and had bruises all over her. There was a suspicion something was amiss but no questions outside protocol were asked. Ultimately her application for housing was not successful because she didn’t have serious enough reason for housing – she already had a local authority house in her name with her partner. So she went home – possibly to a dangerous abuser.

The really awful thing is there is really nothing awful about the officials in question – they are doing their job in highly pressurised environment within the confining bureaucracy of their organisations.

But it is a flawed bureaucracy that is at best deeply ambivalent to women and children escaping domestic violence and at worst deeply obstructive.

Our societal structures are also not the only problem. We are all complicit and responsible in the hiding of the issue. When I tell people where I work I am now accustomed to the pregnant pause of awkwardness that ensues. ‘Oh, er, domestic violence?’ Eyes shift, heads bow, fingers fumble. ‘That must be… tough’.

There is nothing wrong with people’s discomfort either, however the unwillingness of people to ‘go there’ is part of the problem. The silence and unwillingness to tackle the issue allows abuse to continue with impunity along the lines of that that oft misquoted phrase – all it takes for evil to prosper is for good men to do nothing.

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Not my business

Domestic abuse is a crime –  that’s one thing many people seem to forget in the ‘oh I don’t want to get involved’ and ‘there’s probably two of them in it’ kind of logic. The fact it takes place in the home doesn’t make it any less a crime, but it does make it harder to prove. The fact there are emotions, sometimes children, and family entanglements involved can also cloud and hamper the whole legal process – which can be a cold, mechanical place to find yourself at a time when your whole world is turning upside down.

Our silence and our own inability to talk about this issue fosters a culture that says domestic violence is not an issue at all. And so if it happens to a woman or becomes part of her experience, our societal norms tell her that she is the one with the problem and there is nowhere for her to go. Or worse – she tries to get help and her feeling of isolation is compounded by being actually told there is nothing that can be done and there is really nowhere for her to go.

Is this really the legacy we want for our generation? That we carried on with the same shameful silent tacit tolerance of abuse in the home in the same way previous generations accepted the Magdalene laundries and clerical abuse?

Michael Palin has a fantastic quote that is so apt for this country and how we deal – or don’t deal – with our shadows: ‘Torture is a dark area of human experience but if we are afraid to look into it we condone it.’

Paula McGovern is policy and communications officer with Sonas Housing. Sonas provides support housing and refuge to women and children homeless because of domestic violence. www.sonashousing.ie. To read more articles by Paula for TheJournal.ie click here. An international campaign called V-day One Billion Rising was launched this week on Valentine’s Day, demanding an end to violence against women. Events took place all over Ireland with a public flash mob dance happening in Dublin City Centre. Check out the Facebook page for more details.

Read: Women’s Aid calls for review of laws around domestic abuse>

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Paula McGovern

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