For most of us, our homes, throughout lockdown, have been a safe space. A sanctuary where we shelter from the danger that lurks outside. But what do you do if the biggest threat resides inside – and your home becomes a cell in which you are trapped with your abuser?
The calls to the helpline for Women’s Aid since March have been horrific. Women have recounted being beaten, strangled, raped and constantly monitored by partners, who have used the pandemic as a pretext to increase violent attacks.
There are some so twisted that they have found a way to weaponise Covid-19 as a further tool to torture their partners. Women with underlying health conditions have reported their partners flagrantly breaching public health restrictions and then coming home and coughing or spitting on them.
These women live in fear constantly. Every minute of every day is accompanied by a persistent sense of dread that they will say the wrong thing, wear the wrong clothes, make the wrong meal or simply breathe in the wrong way and, suddenly, be savagely attacked.
There are more of them out there than you think. Oftentimes, they live in homes which, from the outside, appear to be models of domestic bliss with men who are viewed as pillars of the community. The ones about whom, after a woman is killed or seriously injured, shocked neighbours say, “He was always known as a great family man.”
This is an issue of life and death for many. Between 1996 and 2019, 231 women in this country died violently. Of the 180 resolved cases, 56pc were killed by a partner or ex-partner. The State cannot stop men attacking women. Gendered violence has existed for millennia and will persist for millennia more. However, what it can do, what it must do, is make it easier for women to come forward and report abuse – and protect those who make the courageous decision to seek help.
Currently, it is failing at that job. Between March and August, an average of eight women and children a day have been turned away from refuges because there was no space. That is a total of 1,351 requests for assistance – which are usually only ever made when a woman is desperate – which could not be met.
Instead of helping these women escape their abuser and find safety and security, the State becomes complicit in their abuse. It gives them little other option but to continue to live in dangerous situations with men who belittle, demean and torture them.
Throughout this crisis, various ministers have made the right noises about wanting to help victims of domestic abuse. But actions speak louder than words. For many years, Ireland has had a scandalously low number of refuge places and successive governments have done nothing about it.
Last year, on International Women’s Day, the director of the National Women’s Council, Orla O’Connor, issued a prescient warning.
“The Council of Europe Convention sets out the minimum refuge spaces required by a State, and at present Ireland only have one-third the recommended spaces. Refuge spaces are critically needed, to protect women and their children fleeing from abusive partners. We know that many women stay in abusive relationships simply because they have nowhere else to go,” she said.
Think about that. Just one-third the recommended number of refuge spaces – in a country that claims to respect and value women’s lives. Since Covid-19 arrived, the situation has deteriorated even further. Due to social distancing and isolation requirements, capacity in emergency refuge accommodation has decreased by 25pc.
Despite these deficiencies in capacity, nearly 2,000 women and 411 children have received support from a domestic violence service every month since March. Of these women and children, an average of 575 women and 98 children accessed the service for the first time.
This is the shadow pandemic. The virus of violence against women that is raging in the shadows, exacerbated by Covid-19.
Today is International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, the day when a spotlight, briefly, gets shone on that shadow. While Government representatives will probably use the occasion to lambast domestic abuse, and those who commit it, what women really need is a promise: That the Government will provide more refuge spaces.
Too often in this country, progress in securing the rights of women proceeds at a snail’s pace and comes only after there has been an avoidable tragedy. The campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment succeeded in puncturing decades of political apathy only after the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar caused widespread public anger and revulsion.
Last week, the Government said it would finally move to enact legislation that made so-called revenge porn illegal. It did so only after up to 140,000 intimate images – some of underage girls – were leaked and posted on an internet server that was accessed by at least 500 users. That legislation was first published three years ago, in 2017. There was no urgency in enacting that legislation –and now it is too late for it to help any of those women.
What will it take for the Government to seriously address the huge dearth of women’s refuge spaces around the country? It has known about it for years, but each year it fails to act.
Will it take a tragedy, in which a woman is turned away and is subsequently killed, before it takes its responsibility to protect women seriously?
Women who are being beaten and abused have little power. As well as suffering physical injuries, their confidence and self-esteem is torn to shreds. When they finally muster up the courage to leave, and save themselves, the State should be there to help them. It’s the least they deserve – and the least they should expect.