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'The tip of the iceberg': 43% rise in people contacting Women's Aid

Some 29,717 people contacted the domestic violence support service last year.

CEO Womens Aid Sarah Benson:
CEO Womens Aid Sarah Benson:
Image: Sam Boal/RN

CALLS TO WOMEN’S Aid, a national support service for women affected by domestic abuse, increased by 43% last year compared to 2019, a new report has found.

Last year, 29,717 people contacted the domestic violence support service reporting high levels of emotional, physical, sexual and economic abuse, according to the group’s Annual Impact Report for 2020.

During these contacts, 24,893 disclosures of domestic abuse against women including coercive control were made.

Support workers also heard 5,948 disclosures of abuse against children, including children being beaten with weapons, sexual abuse, constant and degrading verbal abuse, being hurt when the abuser was trying to attack their mother and abuse or neglect during access visits.

In 2020, the 24-hour national freephone helpline team heard 22,600 disclosures of abuse against women – 16,278 disclosures of emotional abuse, 4,071 of physical abuse, 1,559 of economic abuse, and 777 of sexual abuse.

Some 709 women said they were threatened with murder, 148 women were abused while pregnant and 28 women suffered a miscarriage because of the abuse.

Women’s Aid said the abuse of women and children post-separation is of particular concern, noting that the family law system is failing to adequately protect children and their mothers when considering custody and access arrangements.

“Both Women’s Aid’s on the ground experience and national research show that the family law system fails many women and children who are separating from a domestic abuser. The process is prolonged, costly and disempowering,” CEO of Women’s Aid Sarah Benson said ahead of the report’s launch today.

“It often results in unsafe custody and access arrangements, which disregard the impact of domestic abuse including coercive control on children and overlook the risk of their direct abuse and/or exposure to domestic violence.

“The safety of the protective parent, usually the mother, is rarely, if ever, considered in custody and access hearings.

“As a society, we need to listen to their voices and finally put safety first in family law,” said Benson, welcoming ongoing initiatives such as the Department of Justice and Family Courts Bill which is going through the Oireachtas.

She added that there is a more urgent need to strengthen an already “under-resourced and over-burdened” family law system against an expected tsunami of cases delayed due to Covid-19 restrictions.

“Family law always appears to be the ‘poor relation’ when it comes to investment in our legal system, which is inexplicable given the enormous impact these courts have on the lives of so many. It is time for this to change because lives depend upon it,” she said.

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The onset of the pandemic saw a 38% increase in calls responded to by the 24-hour freephone helpline in comparison to the same period in 2019.

Women’s Aid said it heard from many women that the abuse they had been experiencing had been exacerbated because of Covid-19 lockdown restrictions.

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Some women living with abusive partners reported the added distress of working from home with their partner present all day, for example. Women told the organisation that their abusive partners were using restrictions as an excuse not to leave after they had been violent.

Benson said some women were being actively sabotaged and abused while trying to work from home, with many feeling they had no choice but to give up their jobs.

“These have hugely long-reaching consequences in terms of financial dependence, and then the emotional consequences – levels of emotional stress and fear,” Benson told RTÉ Radio One’s Morning Ireland.

“I think it’s important to say that domestic violence was a pandemic that long preceded Covid-19, the circumstances of the pandemic have certainly aggravated it and shown a light on it.

“The tens of thousands of disclosures we heard in Women’s Aid… we know this is just the tip of the iceberg and that there’s a huge proportion of those subjected to domestic violence and abuse, who will be perhaps suffering in silence still.”

The annual report also found that more older women became service-users in the last year as the toll of living with an abusive partner for many years became too much when forced to spend all their time at home away from friends, family and any activities.

The charity’s 24-hour freephone helpline can be reached on 1800 341 900. An instant-message support service and further information available can be read here.

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Adam Daly

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