Thursday 27 October 2016

Heartbreaking dispatches from women living in fear

Of all the letters to her 'Dear Mary' column in this paper, the most worrying are from women experiencing abuse from their partners

Mary O'Connor

Published 11/09/2016 | 02:30

Tragedy: The remains of Alan Hawe and his three sons Liam, Niall and Ryan are taken into the Church for funeral Mass in Castlerahan earlier this month. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Tragedy: The remains of Alan Hawe and his three sons Liam, Niall and Ryan are taken into the Church for funeral Mass in Castlerahan earlier this month. Photo: Gerry Mooney

The writers tell of a feeling of relief at being able to write it all down, even though the reality of what they have written is awful. Tales of not being allowed have any friends to the house because he doesn't want them around, not being allowed to have a drink at the weekend, being constantly watched and feeling frightened abound, together with stories of major physical abuse and being made to perform unwanted sexual acts.

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However, in the majority of cases - and this is what is so sinister, - these letters are quickly followed by a request not to print them as the writer fears she may be recognised and get more punishment.

One such writer ended by telling me that I would read about her soon if she didn't get away because her life would end. While we do not know the dynamics of Alan and Clodagh Hawe's relationship, and there is only speculation as to what went on, it is undoubtedly true that the murders have raised the issue of spousal abuse in the public consciousness.

It is no coincidence that Women's Aid director Margaret Martin said there was a very significant spike in their website following the awful news from Cavan, with hits on the site going up by almost 300 a day and a huge increase in calls to their 24-hour helpline (1800 341 900).

This is undoubtedly because women in abusive relationships are now reassessing their own situations, wondering if something would cause their partners to savagely attack and murder them, as happened in Cavan and indeed elsewhere. According to Una Butler - who undertook her own research subsequent to her husband murdering her two daughters in 2010 - there have been 27 murder-suicides in Ireland since 2000, 20 of which involved children, with a total of 32 children murdered.

One woman wrote: "I was great fun… one time" - and this is probably true for all those women who find themselves in toxic relationships. But now fun is the last thing they think of with regard to their lives. So why do they stay? What causes women to remain in these relationships and not leave the very first time he lays a hand on her? Or there may not be physical violence, but she comes to realise that what she thought was concern and love - for instance, wanting to know at all times where she is and who she is with - is in fact a control issue that has become totally unbearable. Indeed, a lot of women report that the control they are now feeling was not so apparent earlier in their relationships but became more pronounced after they had children and the children started to grow. However, it is most likely that the need to control was always there, but that it was just not so obvious as it subsequently became. There seem to be two over-riding factors as to why women stay: fear and lack of self-worth. The fear is of displeasing him - the women report walking on eggshells in order to avoid provoking his anger - and the fear of the unknown if they leave the family home. The erosion of self-worth is caused by the drip drip effect of being constantly told you are worthless. I remember many years ago counselling a young woman who was stunningly beautiful and, as soon as she married him, her husband changed from the loving boyfriend he had been. He started to verbally and emotionally abuse her to such an extent that she truly believed she was ugly and worthless and also no good at her job, so she could not afford to leave him. It took her a lot of work on herself to rebuild her self-esteem, having made the decision to leave the marriage.

It goes without saying that the abusive men have issues, but as one writer to me put it: "Do their issues really absolve them from taking responsibility for the fact that you, once again, are slammed up against a wall and called the most appalling names because you didn't have lamb chops for tea? Your legs are like jelly and the fear is palpable as you beg and beg them to stop."

I agree with her. Instead of looking for reasons, is it not time to fully support the victims and make things easier than it currently is for them to report and subsequently leave the abusive situation?

Agencies such as Women's Aid are seriously underfunded, instead of being a priority for the government of the day. It's all very well to talk the talk and issue statements, but actual financial assistance and resources is what counts.

When I visited the wonderful Women's Aid in Rathmines some years ago, I was struck by the sense of peacefulness and serenity amongst the women that I spoke to, despite the fact that they were sharing a small sleeping area with their children - because for the first time in ages they felt safe. A check of that particular website at the time of writing reveals that there is currently a waiting list of four to five families. In real terms that means that four to five families in one small area are in danger of becoming the next awful headline in the coming weeks or months.

To finish on a hopeful note, I would like to quote from a letter I received from a woman who finally had the courage to leave an abusive marriage. She wanted me to let people know that there is a way out, even though it can be incredibly daunting and frightening. "Even if it takes weeks, months or years to do so, you can live again - in safety. I'm not sure that I could ever really express the very real sense of liberation there is in being able to sleep with your bedroom window open, by just a fraction... the liberation there is in being able to feel your appetite back (for almost two years I could not swallow properly)... most of all being able to live without fear. I wish that I could convey the fact that when you get to that place that not for a single millisecond would you go back to the horror of domestic abuse. What I have now was worth all 14 visits to court - we, my children and I, have a life now. It may have taken eight long, bleak years, but we are here, thank God."

There is life after an abusive relationship, but the women who after all are the victims in all this need help to take the very first step towards a better life - both for themselves and their children.

Sunday Independent

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