Tuesday 27 June 2017

Ireland is no country for women who are marginalised, disadvantaged and terrified

Mourners grieve at the scene of an apartment fire in Clondalkin. Photo: Collins Dublin.
Mourners grieve at the scene of an apartment fire in Clondalkin. Photo: Collins Dublin.
Nicola Anderson

Nicola Anderson

Danger had already caused them to flee home once before.

Here, they were safe.

To pick up the pieces of their shattered young lives. To carve out something of their own, free from aggression and intimidation, from harsh voices and raised fists.

A mother and her young child, who had found themselves a sanctuary - temporary perhaps, yet happy, secure and peaceful enough to invite family over to stay for a night.

But as they stood on the cusp of hope and opportunity, danger loomed once again, this time silent and pernicious.

A blaze ripped through their precious home, snuffing out the lives of pregnant Annemarie O'Brien (27) and her daughter Paris (2).

Neighbours bring flowers and teddy bears. Photo: Collins
Neighbours bring flowers and teddy bears. Photo: Collins

Her cousin Biddy O'Brien - as close to her as a sister - who had been visiting, was last night fighting for her life, while Biddy's children Jordan (4) and Holly (3) tragically perished in the blaze.

That life could be so cruel could scarcely be fathomed.

Smoke damaged vent at the apartment. Photo: Frank McGrath
Smoke damaged vent at the apartment. Photo: Frank McGrath

Occurring in the early hours of International Women's Day, the tragedy took on an even more bitter significance.

A heartwrenching shrine of teddy bears and flowers at the scene spoke helplessly of the numb grief felt at the loss of such innocents, while the curtains billowed from the open windows of those women and children who still remain in the complex.

Ireland is no country for women who are marginalised, disadvantaged and terrified for their very lives and the lives of their children. We do not need the statistics to tell us that.

And yet, the statistics are there to convince those who may doubt.

More than 4,000 women and children are being accommodated on a yearly basis in emergency refuge accommodation in this country.

New Garda figures recorded just under 6,000 domestic violence incidents for 2016 - a figure thought to be grossly under-reported or perhaps inaccurately recorded.

Neighbours placed flowers and teddy bears at the scene of the apartment fire. Photo: Collins
Neighbours placed flowers and teddy bears at the scene of the apartment fire. Photo: Collins

Safe Ireland, which works with frontline domestic violence services, takes 50,000 calls a year, with women and children arriving at its doors every day and every night to seek refuge.

One in five women in Ireland is affected by domestic violence.

This leaves tens of thousands of women and children who are daily living in fear, afraid to be in their own homes, ever aware of a crucial shift in mood or atmosphere which could see their very lives at risk.

Annemarie had escaped this scenario, taking her daughter with her.

Read more: Devastating apartment blaze which killed four is second fire tragedy to hit family

Sonas, the agency which helps victims of domestic violence, assisted her in this. Not for nothing does its name translate as 'happiness'.

The agency's CEO, Fiona Ryan, expressed her devastation at what had occurred here at the stepdown facility which provides frightened women and their children with a secure home for six months.

Annemarie had been looking forward to finding a house of her own in the Clondalkin locality where she could raise her children. She was excited about her new baby, who was to be born in June, and had found out that she was carrying a son.

There can be little doubt that Biddy had encouraged her in her new life.

Now all hope and future have been snuffed out, as it was for the young families of the inferno at the halting site in Carrickmines in October 2015.

In a cruel twist of fate, Annmarie O'Brien was related to the Lynch family who passed away in the blaze, and had been particularly close to Tara Gilbert (27), who was one of those who had died.

Ireland is no country for Traveller women either - but then, we have known that for a long time.

Statistics show that 81.2pc of Traveller women are unemployed, with suicide rates for Traveller women standing at five times higher than women in the general population.

Some 62.7pc of Traveller women report poor mental health and Travellers experience grinding poverty and regular discrimination.

There had been hope after Carrickmines that things might change and that adequate housing might be provided for Traveller people.

But such hope ebbed away quietly in the midst of the worst housing crisis in the history of the State, hitting the most vulnerable hardest - with, as usual, women and children suffering most of all.

The National Social Change Agency has warned that homeless figures are being greatly under-estimated because more than 4,000 women and children being accommodated on a yearly basis in emergency refuge are not being counted and recognised as being homeless.

While in 2015, up to 80pc of women fleeing domestic violence were turned away from Dublin refuges because of the crisis in accommodation in the city - a crisis which has only worsened in the intervening period.

Events over the recent week only appear to offer the grim recognition that for Irish women, life has always been cruel, with the discovery of 'significant remains' at the Tuam mother and baby home.

"We dug deep and we dug deeper still to bury our compassion, to bury our mercy, to bury our humanity itself," said the Taoiseach the previous day in a comment on Ireland's shame.

The historic and the present come together in the relentless, constant theme of women and their bodies in this country.

Thousands marched on the capital as part of the Strike4Repeal campaign, calling for a referendum on abortion, in solidarity with the 11 Irish women forced to travel every day for an abortion.

International Women's Day, far from being a celebration then, provided a moment of solemn introspection on how our society stands and reminded us how there is still some distance to go in ensuring that the basic dignity of women is respected.

Irish Independent

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