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Battered women being trapped by the housing crisis

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Margaret Martin of Women's Aid

Margaret Martin of Women's Aid

Margaret Martin of Women's Aid

Christmas 2014 was the worst on record for domestic violence against women, with the current housing crisis putting their lives in even greater danger, according to Women's Aid.

The holiday has always been a dangerous time for women in abusive relationships.

Abusive partners use the festive season to ramp up fear, intimidation and intentional cruelty and violence, according to Women's Aid director, Margaret Martin.

But the level of violence and abuse reported to the domestic violence support agency's helpline over the Christmas period this year was unprecedented, she said.

"What really worries us is the level of physical abuse which was very high this year. We were getting reports of women being choked and strangled to the point of losing consciousness," she told the Sunday Independent.

Unlike previous years, excessive alcohol consumption by abusers was not a common or prevalent factor, she added.

At the same time, the lack of affordable and social housing, coupled with the dearth of affordable rental properties in the greater Dublin area, led to a surge of calls to the helpline in the days before Christmas and over the holidays.

It meant some women in abusive relationships were forced to sleep in cars. Others, sometimes with children, found themselves on the floors or sofas at the homes of family and friends as they sought sanctuary from violence, said Ms Martin.

"The housing crisis is even more serious for victims of domestic violence because the women are unable to leave the family home for financial or other reasons. If they cannot move, they face the real prospect of being harmed," she said.

"They're being forced to make a choice between hospitalisation or homelessness," she added

There are currently 90,000 people on the waiting list for social housing, with at least 170 "rough sleepers" in the capital alone, according to Dublin Simon Community figures.

Jacinta Carey, chair of Safe Ireland, which runs a national network of more than 40 services for victims of domestic violence, said its 21 emergency shelters are full to capacity due to the lack of housing available for women fleeing domestic violence.

"It's almost the perfect storm," she said.

"The 141 family units for short-term emergency accommodation at Safe Ireland's 21 refuges is a third of the recommended minimum number in other EU States. Women are being forced to stay in them for the medium and long-term because there is nowhere else for them to go," she said.

Just over 2,000 women and 2,700 children spent between three days to seven months at the refuge centres in 2013, the last year for which statistics were available.

But there were close to 4,000 requests made by women seeking emergency shelter the same year, meaning that hundreds of women, who were turned away, were potentially placed in danger by being forced to remain in their homes with abusive partners, Ms Carey said.

Turning to the courts for protection from an abusive partner that would allow an abuse victim to remain in the family home is also not a short-term solution because it could take up to four months for the local district court to issue a barring order.

The best a victim can hope for is securing an interim protection order in which a perpetrator can be arrested if he breaches any of the conditions.

A recent report from the Garda Inspectorate found widespread inconsistency in how gardai respond to domestic violence incidents.

Sunday Independent