Senator Lynn Ruane writes about how social isolation is affecting women living with domestic violence and coercive control, and what they, we, and the government can do to help. Listen to her, Listen to the advocates.
Sweaty palms, increased heart rate and a lump of fear lodged in my gut. That is how I felt just speaking about the Domestic Violence Legislation. That’s how far the coercive control reaches into your life long after ‘he’ is gone. I shudder at the thought of what it would mean during times of social distance and isolation to be living with a partner who emotionally or physically abuses you.[restrict]
For years, the domestic violence supports for women have been stretched beyond their means. Supporting women in fear of their lives is often invisible to the rest of society. Mainly because women need anonymity and often because the victims or survivors of domestic abuse do not want to draw attention to themselves, do not wish to invite an abuser back in by speaking out and also because they are protecting their family members.
I know how hard it is to act and act quickly when a woman says “Now. Get me out of here now.”. Having gone on this journey before with other women, I would immediately fear our efforts to find refuge would come up empty for a mother and her child or children. On one occasion, I broke all the boundaries of a professional community worker and took a child to stay at mine for the night, as we could only find a bed for his mother.
We saw recently that UN Secretary-General António Guterres had urged governments to include the protection of women in their response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Weeks ago was the time our government should have acted in response to calls from domestic violence bodies to protect women. As we move away from communal spaces due to health concerns, we must be instantly moving women into all the empty homes now available. In a crisis, creativity soars, yet from my knowledge, creativity and action to support women have fallen flat at a state level. Isolation compounds the risk.
Beyond women seeking refuge, there are countless situations women find themselves in today. Children not being returned from access and Covid-19 being used as a weapon to make this happen. Women are isolating with their kids, and an ex-partner is threatening them daily that they will pay the price for not sending the kids to live with him during this. There are homes where women have to continue to work and are warned that they will be thrown out of the house if they so much as cough after a day’s shift.
Some women have lost their low-paid work and now have had their child maintenance withheld with reasons such as ‘well if I can’t see my child right now, then you’re not getting a penny’. Any way to control will be used.
Go online today and you will be met with the most beautiful responses to Covid-19. In many ways, it is binding us together with a common cause, as we are hurled into a process of change like no other. Imagine being her though. The woman who exists in a world everyone is finding new ways to connect, yet she wasn’t allowed to connect in our old ‘normal’. In many ways, our daily habit of consuming, working and achieving has come to an abrupt end. Some of us welcome the interruption, but there are women in this country that who cannot distract themselves with online workouts, browsing on Twitter or trying out a new hobby at home.
While many of us miss being touched, there are women praying ‘he’ doesn’t touch her. While many of us increase our online use, some women are having their access to the online world monitored or taken away. It is crucial we act as a community in our efforts to ensure women and children are safe. At a time when it is almost impossible for her to speak out, then why don’t you? The concerned neighbour, the friend that knows her friend will need a lifeline, the brother that knows that his brother has a ‘temper’. We can make that call to Women’s Aid and all Safe Ireland services for advice.
We can speak and seek support when she can’t.
ISOLATED FROM HOPE
Many women are already living in isolation. Now, they are thrown towards isolation wrapped in more isolation. Maybe isolation is something she knows well, but now it means so much more than it did before.
Women will be feeling isolated from the dream that the next day, when he goes to work, she will make her escape. She will call her parents and tell them once and for all what is happening to her. She knows now, though, he won’t be going to work, she can never make that call. Soon she is isolated from finally making that call to a helpline as his patience with the kids in the house 24/7 grows thin. The feeling of hope she felt planning and plotting as to how she would get out of there is gone, as now all she feels is that fear lodged in her gut, wondering how she will protect the kids from his mood swings.
The one thing that keeps her going through the night is gone – for one friend, who shared with me this week, it was the walk to school with her two young kids. Knowing she had that half an hour out of the house. She would miss the feeling of relief that the kids were in school away from the abusive partner for the day. If a woman’s home is the least safe place for her to be, what does that look like now? Maybe work was your sanctuary, or maybe your partner going to work was a respite.
In the time of Covid-19 being further constrained to the space and person where your life is most at risk increases the level of violence exponentially. We are facing into a scary time for women and children who are living in violent situations. Layered on top of the fear for one’s health in a pandemic is the loss of earnings that will increase the level of violence within the home. The fear victims of abuse feel living with their partners is now further compounded by the fact that many abusers now have 24-hour access to their partners.
Many services that women accessed during the day have had to close their doors, whether that’s a support group or an educational programme. But it’s very important to emphasise that domestic violence supports are still operating.
So, what can you do?
Services are open, use them, call them. You do not have to be the woman who experiences domestic violence to call them. Check in with a friend, if she is not communicating, check in with her family. If you know your friend or family member is an abuser, then check in with them too. All can be done in a non-confrontational way but in a way that you keep the family connected with their family and friends.
What can the government do?
Release funding to those who can help, especially those who can identify alternative housing stock that women can be moved to, either from home or from a communal refuge. Ensure information is accessible in all communities around Ireland that domestic violence services are open. We can’t rely on the online world to reach all families right now. Local authorities have a role; not only do they know of empty homes, but they have local knowledge of communities that may be most isolated. There should be a strategy of reaching those homes with the information that may not be accessible online.
Tusla has a massive responsibility here, and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs’ radio silence here is deafening. A collective approach between the Department of Children and the Department of Justice is a must, and this includes working with all the domestic violence advocacy bodies and services, who have the capacity to manage this crisis and are best-placed to ensure women are safe. The Department of Justice this week announced an awareness campaign and we must match that campaign with options and supports.
What can she do?
If it is safe to do so, please call Women’s Aid on 1800-341-900 or find your local supports on the SAFE Ireland website.
The fee for this piece was donated to Safe Ireland. You can donate €4 now by texting SAFE to 50300.