There is now a greater need than ever for secure emergency accommodation for women in abusive relationships throughout West Cork, writes Siobhan Cronin
‘ON my first visit, I was so distraught I could hardly speak but the staff listened and dispensed many tissues with the advice.’
That comment, from one of the visitors to the West Cork Women Against Violence (WCWAV) service, sums up the urgent need for a local, safe haven for women who are victims of domestic abuse – either physical or mental.
While there is no doubting the demand for the information and support service, WCWAV research commissioned earlier this year has shown a very blatant demand for safe accommodation, too.
The body originated in Bantry in 1998, when a local women’s project secured a special project worker. Two years later, it was HSE-funded and able to add an outreach service in Skibbereen.
But now, 16 years on, the need is greater than ever – as evidenced by a report carried out by researcher Dr Caroline Crowley. ‘Somewhere to turn to, somewhere to go’ is an 80-page comprehensive report into the workings of the project, enabling the board to establish the most pressing items on its ‘wishlist’ for the future.
A survey into the service had a 53% response rate and one of the biggest revelations was the regular reference to the need for secure emergency accommodation for women in fear.
There is currently no women’s refuge in West Cork and the closest facility is in Cork city. However, the city service is almost constantly over-subscribed and the beds cannot be accessed, the report revealed.
‘There is never space in the facility in Cork city when we need it, and our only other option is to use B&Bs in West Cork,’ WCWAV co-ordinator Marie Mulholland told The Southern Star.
But in West Cork the access to B&Bs is very difficult in the summer period – due to low vacancy rates and increased prices, and a costly option at any time of year.
The majority of the women surveyed were married or had been in the past. Two-thirds of respondents were separated, divorced or going through the separation process. Three women were married and/or living apart. Three were single and never married, while one had moved on to a new relationship and was engaged.
One surprising revelation was the high level of education among the same group of women surveyed. Two-thirds of the women had post-secondary education, and one-third had a degree or higher qualification, while another third had taken some further education or vocational training. Almost all others had completed secondary school.
There is a view, however stereotyped it may be, that victims of domestic abuse may be largely from a poor socio-economic or educational background, but this research dispels that – showing a very broad cross-section of society is affected.
The project is now hoping to attract government funding and HSE backing for a local women’s refuge – made all the more urgent by recent tragic stories of women living in fear of their lives which made national headlines.
And while 71% of women made contact with the service by phone, the lack of a night-time helpline means that many families cannot access help when it is most needed.
The comments made by the women interviewed by Dr Crowley make for some sober reading. One woman said she had tried a few times to make contact in the evenings, ‘when things were worse at home’, not realising it was only a daytime service.
Most of the respondents reported the reason for their initial contact as a crisis situation.
Comments ranged from ‘I was in crisis’ to ‘I was afraid of being attacked by my violent husband’ to ‘I was very afraid for myself and my children. All I knew was I couldn’t handle the situation I was in and the fear was too much.’
Another woman said ‘I had to leave my home as it wasn’t safe there for me and my children. I had nowhere safe to go to get away from my husband. I contacted WCWAV and they arranged for us to go and stay in a refuge.’
Of course, that refuge must have been in Cork city, or further afield, as there is no facility here for such a crisis.
And because so many other women made similar comments, about needing an urgent ‘safe house’, the project has now put its focus on creating that safe option for families in West Cork.
Another woman spoke of the help the gardai had given her, an aspect that was also echoed by other respondents: ‘I knew I had to get out but did not know how. After another incident where the guards had been called, it was recommended I called WCWAV. I didn’t actually realise how bad my situation was until I spoke about it on my first meeting.’
For another woman, it was a dawning of a realisation following a quarter century of abuse: ‘I had been in an abusive relationship for over 25 years. My family were grown up. After a holiday away with him, I cried all the way home and realised I would have to talk to someone. I told my GP that afternoon. She was surprised at how I ‘covered up’ for him. She contacted West Cork Mental Health Services.’
The report says the results emphasise the importance of staff having sufficient time for communication with women in distress – to listen and to share information, to help them prioritise their needs and to give them the support required to act on that knowledge.
When contacting the service for the first time, women experienced a range of feelings and these varied from ‘fear’ and being ‘distraught’ to ‘gratitude’ and ‘relief’ following their contact. The women’s narratives progressed from feeling ‘stupid’ and powerless to finding ‘encouragement’ and ‘strength’, Dr Crowley noted.
Women were unanimous in their opinion that the service had made a difference for them, such as supporting them to make their own decisions.
There were also case studies of support workers accompanying women to court, which many felt was more reassuring comforting that having just their solicitor present.
‘The calm assurance of my support worker helped me to deal with so many bad days where I thought I couldn’t cope,’ said one interviewee.
Some of the comments highlighting the emotional value of the service included: ‘The support offered is like a safety net. My self-esteem has improved’; ‘I have found a voice and inner strength …’; ‘They gave me as much support as they could. I was very upset, even depressed, but they helped me emotionally and boosted my self-confidence.’
Perhaps these two quotes help to sum up the importance of the service for the women and children of West Cork:
‘It’s just nice to know that they are there for me and my children if needed,’ and ‘I could not have survived without this service.’
Ms Mulholland said despite the fact the service is already stretched, she now believes the service has to find a way of establishing emergency accommodation.
She has urged local people, including politicians and client organisations of the service, to lobby for a place where these women and children can find safety and security, for however long that needs to be.
• If you need to contact the West Cork Women Against Violence Project, phone 027-53847 or the Freephone Helpline 1800 203136. www.westcorkwomensproject.ie