Abuse in the home is a reality that must be faced and it is happening in our communities, writes Sr Fiona Pryle
After the murder of Garda Tony Golden in Omeath, Co. Louth in October 2015, it was widely reported in the media that he lost his life keeping the peace. The reality is that he was, in fact, trying to protect a young woman from the serious crime of domestic violence.
The case and the reporting highlight the depressing fact that domestic violence is often a hidden crime that takes place behind closed doors. People are too often unaware, or choose to turn a blind eye.
This is the genesis of the days of activism to highlight this pervasive issue. The 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence is an international campaign to challenge violence against women and girls. The campaign runs every year from November 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, to December 10, World Human Rights Day. Currently, more than 3,700 organisations from approximately 164 countries participate in the campaign annually.
One of the world’s most persistent violations of human rights is violence against women.
As the case of Siobhan Philips and Garda Golden highlight, one of the aims of the days of activism is to draw attention to the fact that the scale and true nature of the issue is often hidden.
The incident was reported as ‘keeping the peace’. But, that is a term usually reserved for dealing with drunken revellers in town centres rather than the fact that women are victims of violence in their own homes.
According to Women’s Aid, one-in-five women experience some form of domestic violence in Ireland.
They want to challenge what they describe as pervasive myths in society which minimise women’s experience of abuse and blames the victim. Communities across the country are coming together to raise awareness with more than 100 events taking place over the next two weeks.
Historically, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women is based on the date of the 1960 assassination of the three Mirabal sisters, political activists in the Dominican Republic; the killings were ordered by Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo.
These days are a vital time for us as a country to ask ourselves to what extent do we understand what domestic violence is and do we really believe that it is happening in our own neighbourhoods and parishes.
It is also time to shine a light on the fact that domestic violence requires a more robust and clear response from society and the criminal justice system.
Take the 2017 case, for example, of a 31-year-old fitness instructor who was convicted of punching his ex-partner. He received only 100 hours community service for the violent action.
His victim made headlines when she posted an online video displaying her injuries and describing her attack. In court the attackers’ lawyer characterised this as an attempt to destroy him. The lawyer went on to tell the sentence hearing it was different to a ‘normal’ domestic assault in that the perpetrator had been confronted by the victim earlier at a shopping centre and she had thrown a phone at him during another confrontation outside his work place, and as a result of that she was struck a blow.
Domestic abuse and violence is different from other forms of violence because it is about power and maintaining control over spouses and partners. The power element means all domestic violence situations are potentially and extremely dangerous. Anyone who tries to help the victim – usually a woman – is also at risk. This is particularly so if the woman is planning to leave the relationship.
The statistics state one in four women in Ireland experience some form of abuse in their lives and that 79% of women who experience violence do not report it.
In 2017, Women’s Aid had 21,451 contacts and reported 19,385 disclosures of domestic violence against women and children. This is a snapshot of what is happening in the country as nearly every town and district has a domestic violence service. Hence pointing to the high figures of domestic violence in Ireland.
Women’s Aid reported just last week that seven women have died in violent circumstances so far this year, according to Women’s Aid. The charity is calling for formal reviews of domestic killings as a matter of urgency.
Since 1996, 225 women have died violently in Ireland – with 16 children being killed alongside their mothers. The vast majority of women knew their killers and more than half were, or had been, in a relationship with them.
After many years of agencies campaigning, important progress was made in 2017, with the development of a legislative framework that will provide greater safety for women and children and move Ireland closer to ratifying the so-called ‘Istanbul Convention’ – a Council of Europe measure against violence against women.
The Domestic Violence Bill (2017) which was meant to be enacted in the summer, will see real improvements for victims of domestic violence, including the extension and protection of safety orders to couples in intimate relationships without any requirement for cohabitation. Measures will also include the introduction of guidelines for the granting of protective orders, the inclusion of the intimate relationship between perpetrator and victim as an aggravating factor and the new crime of coercive control.
Any domestic assault ought to be a source of shame to the country and to the law. No-one should be trying to characterise any type of violence like this as ‘normal’.
If as a society we want to eradicate domestic violence, we need to talk about it. We must address it and, as people of faith, pray for both the victims and the perpetrators. We also need to raise awareness in our parishes of the seriousness of domestic violence in current families and the impact for future generations.
Can we look with honesty as a Christian community at this horror in so many homes that are meant to be havens of peace? Can we as a Church, acknowledge this violation of women and children? Can we plan, at least, to have a prayer included in the prayer of the faithful at Sunday Mass during these important days of activism?
Over the last number of years women have been bravely coming forward to share their experiences and telling their stories. Their testimonies have brought about an increased number of calls to helplines for support. Just last year, three courageous women telling their story in the media showed a ten-fold increase in calls to the Women’s Aid national helpline. The broadcast and testimony bravely shared by businesswoman Norah Casey on the Late Late Show earlier this year also allowed women to identify with the real lived experiences of those extraordinary women.
From my experience of working with women in domestic violence since 2002, I have seen hundreds of lives being changed when women can speak of their experiences and get the help they need.
Sr Fiona Pryle is a Good Shepherd sister and social worker currently journeying with women seeking justice in the courts.