'When I was diagnosed with cancer, my abusive husband accused me of lying'
One in four Irish women has suffered some form of domestic abuse. Chrissie Russell reports on our silent victims
'From the outside, it looked like I'd a lovely family, nice cars, a beautiful home and holidays in the sun but I felt so isolated knowing it was just a façade.
"Behind closed doors my husband was abusive, always screaming at me and putting me down. If I didn't answer the phone by a certain time, he'd accuse me of having an affair.
"Whether he came home at 6pm or 10pm, I had to have dinner ready to go on the table.
"And when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, he accused me of lying: that I just wanted the doctors to see me naked. I was always trying to figure out what I'd done wrong and predict what would please him – but I never, ever got it right."
Mum-of-one Michelle (*not her real name) went from being a happy, confident 'girl about town' in her 20s to living a life of virtual isolation thanks to her businessman husband's frequent rages.
Her story is by no means uncommon. According to a new EU survey, 26pc of Irish women has been a victim of physical and/or sexual abuse and one in three have experienced some form of psychological violence.
These sobering statistics were addressed at the weekend by Women's Aid director Margaret Martin, as well as fellow speakers including the Irish Independent's Legal Editor Dearbhail McDonald, in a lecture on Women and Violence, which was held at the Markievicz School in Liberty Hall.
Martin, whose organisation also marks its 40th anniversary this year, says: "Almost a quarter of a million women in Ireland are suffering physical abuse and half a million are dealing with emotional abuse – those are huge numbers. There is a lot of work that still needs to be done."
One of the primary issues concerning Women's Aid is the under-reporting of abuse. Research by Domestic Violence services organisation SAFE Ireland (safeireland.ie) shows that on a woman will experience 35 incidents of domestic abuse before disclosing it to anyone and just 29pc of Irish women who experience abuse report it to gardai.
Michelle felt too emotionally worn down to tell anyone what was going on. "Even now I look back and wonder what happened," she says. "It happened so slowly and he was so discreet. When it all came out, there were people who looked at me like I was mad saying 'you're joking, he's lovely'.
"Then there were other people that he'd bullied at work who said 'we always knew what he was like'.
"All I wanted to know was why did they never say anything? If just once someone had said something, it might have made a difference."
Michelle, who endured nearly seven years of emotional and sexual abuse, never identified herself as a stereotypical 'battered wife'. Neither did Susan* (48) a mum-of-one who was abused mentally and physically by her husband for over 10 years. Both are well educated, middle-class women, whose husbands were upstanding members of the community.
"I would always have said I wasn't 'one of those' women, anyone who met my husband would have said he was very charming," says Susan.
It was only when she joined a support group through ADAPT Domestic Abuse Services (adaptservices.ie) that she realised – she was. "There were doctors' wives, solicitors' wives, rich women, poor women. But the one thing we all had in common was that we were married to the same man."
It's this issue with identification that support organisations fear could be preventing more women from accessing help and stopping people from identifying abuse within a relationship.
Fiona Ryan, CEO of Sonas Domestic Violence Charity (sonashousing.ie), explains: "There's a perception that domestic abuse only happens to women from a certain socio-economic background and that is simply not true."
She's also insistent that abusive behaviour can't be explained away by external factors like work stress, alcohol or the recession.
"Men don't turn into abusers because of the recession," she says.
"The recession is creating more pressure and financial control is a massive issue but when it comes to the question 'why do men abuse?' we don't have a simple answer.
"Some men have a high sense of entitlement and believe 'this is what I'm entitled to in a relationship'. Then there are men with control issues and those control issues can be re-enforced by cultural norms that support certain perceptions of male characteristics and feed in to the shame and secrecy surrounding domestic abuse.
"Men and women can also repeat patterns from their own childhoods and abusers can actively target women with low self-esteem.
"It's a 64 million dollar question 'why do men abuse?' and there's no one answer, just a lot of complex factors."
Fiona feels an equally worrying issue is that often the question asked is 'why didn't she leave?' which instantly puts responsibility for the abuse in the hands of the victim rather than the perpetrator.
In many cases, the catalyst spurring victims to take action is their child.
"My six year-old daughter used to hide in the curtains begging her dad to stop screaming and he'd yell at me 'why the f*** does she always have to be here?'" recalls Michelle.
"He'd tell her he was going to take her away and kill me. I remember her crying and begging me to run away and I knew I had to do it for her."
Susan's son was 10 when he saw his father spitting in his mum's face and yelled at him to stop, telling him he hated him. "That was it," she says. "I didn't want my son going through that."
But sadly deciding to leave doesn't mark the end of the problem. Services are woefully under-resourced, with Ireland only having one third of the refuge places needed and typically the pressure is on the victim to leave while the perpetrator remains in the family home.
Housing and financial concerns are often coupled with feelings of guilt and shame over breaking up the family while legal options such as barring orders and safety orders can prove disappointingly ineffective.
Michelle was granted a barring order. "Thirty minutes later he was already back in our family home," she says. "He took everything – the child's toys and even the cutlery. The order said he couldn't do it, but I never got it back."
She's now under pressure to make her daughter, 10, adhere to an access agreement – even though the child is terrified at the prospect of seeing her dad.
Despite a court order, Susan is still battling to get child maintenance from her husband. During their relationship he threw her across a room, put a cigarette out on her, spat at and repeatedly grabbed her by the wrists and throat – but she feels the fact that she has no broken bones stands against her in court.
"There was never a punch and when you walk into court that's all they want to know," she says. "But the psychological damage is 100 times worse. I've talked to women who've experienced every kind of abuse and they all agree – bruises heal, but you can't show the pain that's left on the inside."
She's now part of a group of domestic abuse survivors, United and Strong, lobbying for greater legal support for victims of domestic violence.
"Domestic abuse continues to be a hidden issue with a lot of stigma and shame," says Margaret Martin. "We need to promote a culture that encourages dialogue. It's bad enough to be the victim of abuse, but it makes it 10 times worse if you can't talk about it.
"There's no reason why victims should feel ashamed – they're not the ones who have done anything wrong."
FOR HELP, CONTACT WOMEN'S AID (HELPLINE 1800 341 900); SAFE IRELAND (0906 479078); ADAPT SERVICES (HELPLINE 1800 200 504)