Ireland: Feminists highlight gender inequity in politics & hidden scourge of domestic violence Print E-mail

 Dublin ~ Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Editorial: Women's Day

WHEN INTERNATIONAL Women’s Day was first celebrated on this day 100 years ago, a million women joined rallies across Europe for the right to work, to vote, to be trained, to hold public office and to end discrimination. Testimony today to the efforts of generations of women’s campaigners, those rights to work and train – 60 per cent of Irish women are in the paid workforce – and to vote and hold public office have been substantially achieved, although inequality and prejudice endure. And violence remains a feature of all too many women’s lives. The struggle goes on. Attitudes die hard. Institutions are slow to change.

The new programme for government includes a number of references to women’s rights, some general and aspirational, others more specific and welcome. A Fine Gael-Labour coalition appointed the first minister of state for equality and hopefully will do so again. “Equality is at the heart of what it means to be a citizen in our democracy,” the programme declares somewhat piously, promising to ensure “that the rights of women and men to equality of treatment and to participate fully in society are upheld”.

It promises that State boards will include at least 40 per cent representation of each gender and, in a half-hearted step towards gender-mainstreaming, to require public bodies “to take due note of equality and human rights in carrying out their functions”.

The programme promises to consolidate and reform legislation on domestic violence and family law. In health policy there are pledges to introduce a cervical cancer vaccination catch-up programme for all girls in secondary school, to extend Breastcheck to women aged 65-69 years, to compensate those excluded on age grounds from the Lourdes Hospital Redress Scheme, and to ban female genital mutilation.

There is a welcome commitment, backed by the National Women’s Council, to removing the antiquated constitutional reference to women’s place in the home – “by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved” – and to encouraging greater participation in politics. There was no change in women’s representation in the election: some 23 women TDs have again been returned, none under 30, and only three under 40. Of 566 candidates, only 86 were women. The programme rightly eschews the idea of quotas for women candidates in favour of linking party subsidies to the number of women candidates they put up.
 Monday, March 7, 2011

The hidden world of domestic abuse

Violence in the home remains one of the most serious forms of abuse facing Irish women today, writes KITTY HOLLAND , on the eve of International Women’s Day

IT’S THE “most serious human rights abuse facing Irish women, and people don’t want to get involved,” says Eimear Fisher, executive director of Cosc – the National Office for Prevention of Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence.

“In an estate of 100 houses, in 15 of them will be women who have lived with severe domestic abuse. In six will be men who have lived with abuse. It is estimated just 10 per cent of those suffering will access services. So, while 7,500 women accessed domestic violence services in 2009, that’s 75,000 women experiencing abuse in any one year. It’s huge.”

Safe Ireland, which co-ordinates services for women experiencing domestic violence, has seen a 43 per cent increase in the number of women accessing its services over the past three years.

“The number of women our 41 refuges were unable to accommodate in 2009, because they were full, was 2,431 – the highest ever. Last year’s figures are set to be higher again,” says the NGO’s spokeswoman Catríona Gleeson. “With those women there would have been over 3,000 children.”

To take just three refuges last week: the Adapt refuge in Tralee, Co Kerry, was full all week. Ten women and 23 children were accommodated. No one had to be turned away. “We were lucky,” said manager Anne Marie Foley.

In Co Louth, the Dundalk Women’s Aid refuge was also full, with five women. One woman could not be accommodated.

In Galway, Cope Waterside House, the only 24-hour refuge in the west, was full all week with six women and nine children. “We were unable to accommodate seven women with nine children,” said manager Wendy Heuston.

Key to addressing the pressure on refuges must be getting help to women before they have to flee their homes, and key to this is breaking the taboo around domestic abuse.

“It is a difficult subject, which people feel it’s too difficult to broach,” says Fisher. “Our research finds 88 per cent of people would be reluctant to intervene, they would be reluctant to ‘get involved in other people’s business’,” says Fisher. “People said they would intervene if they witnessed abuse, or if it was a relative that was being abused. But not otherwise.

“People don’t want to step into the intimate arena of someone else’s relationship. They don’t want to seem to judge the woman and her choices. And of course they may feel they’ll make things worse. For the woman, she may still love the man, there may be children and there may be economic dependence.”

Says Gleeson, there is often huge social pressure on the woman not to “break up the family”. She may feel shame at being in the situation. And there is still a real sexism in Irish society that says “she made her bed and must lie in it”.

Women experiencing abuse often minimise it to themselves, they don’t believe their case is bad enough to report, or they don’t think they’ll be believed. They repeatedly dismiss incidents as “one offs”, or make excuses for the man and blame themselves.

Because many women in the situation cannot clearly see what is happening to them, says Gleeson, “it is critical that people who suspect it’s happening, name it as unacceptable.

“As citizens we have to say domestic violence is not okay. As long as silence surrounds it it will remain pervasive. With knowledge and disclosure it will wither.”

LIZ, (43) LIVES JUST OUTSIDE DUBLIN, and is a professional working in an office environment. She has close friends, a supportive family and would describe herself as confident and intelligent.

She also describes herself as having been “very, very alone” for 15 years, while her husband punched her, raped her, threw her to the ground, dug his nails into her flesh, criticised her in front of family, threatened to kill her, terrorised her and stepped on her stomach when she was five months pregnant.

Her husband’s family told her to “get tougher” with him, while her own family, though comforting, “just didnt know what to do. And of course, I wanted my marriage to work. In the early years I thought I could show him how to treat someone you loved.”

Her family doctor told her he’d help, but didn’t, while social services told her her case was “not bad enough” to warrant intervention.

From a middle-class family, she was introduced to Michael when she was 21 by a mutual friend. “He was very personable, social, a real charmer and seemed to come from a very close, loving family. I’d say there were signs before we got married. He’d get over-the-top angry for no apparent reason. I’d be outraged and he’d apologise. On the day of the wedding my gut feeling was not to go through with it. I knew it wasn’t the thing to do but I put it down to cold feet.”

Almost immediately after marrying she was scared of him. “He became very aggressive, shouting if I disagreed with him about anything. He’d twist my arms, dig his nails into my shoulders. He’d slam doors in my face. If a man stopped to talk to me I’d be accused of flirting.”

At times he agreed his behaviour was unacceptable and would promise to change. “He wasn’t this monster all the time. It was very confusing for me. He could be very loveable. With other people he was affectionate, helpful, emptying the dishwasher. I was told by a colleague once that I didn’t have a husband, I had a godsend.”

The violence – physical and emotional – got worse. “He’d put me down about my weight in front of friends, but make it seem like good-natured slagging and he’d say I was too sensitive. For the first three years I was just in shock at the situation.”

“His family’s way of dealing with it was to ignore it. His brother went looking for him, brought him back to the house and told him not to do it again. Excuses were made for him. He was under financial pressure, they said. And I was told to toughen up with him.”

After three years she left and went to her mother’s with their two-year-old son. Her mother and sister were “very supportive”, but “hadn’t a clue what to do”. After three months she went back as she “needed support looking after our son”. The abuse continued.

“The worst was when I was pregnant with our second child. After a row about him staying out all night he got me down on the ground and stepped over me, stepping on my stomach. I was pregnant and a dog in the street wouldn’t have done what he did to me, to a defenceless baby in the womb, to his baby.”

He would also emotionally and physically abuse the children, putting them down, shouting in rages and on occasion hit them. “Over the years he’d agree to stop. He’d stop for a while.” Only when her second son, whom he “constantly picked on”, was assessed as having psychological problems did she see that the abuse was affecting her children. The solution put to her was that she should cut down on work, to be at home more – never that Michael’s presence in the home should be looked at.

In the end, she found Teach Tearmainn, a support service for women living with domestic violence, in Co Kildare. “Walking in those doors, it was the first time I felt validated, believed, taken seriously, safe, in 13 years. On that first day they told me I had a safe place to go.”

She got advice and counselling and began to feel stronger. She got a protection order from the courts and one weekend when he was away she called him and told him not to come back to the house as she needed a break.

The two are now legally separated. “I was being mentally and emotionally tortured and maybe people knew there was something wrong, but I think I was a good actress. I don’t think most people would know. I had no black eyes. What I’d say is you don’t have to come between them, but be there for the woman. Tell her you’re there for her if she needs to talk.”

It was her husband’s sister who gave her the number for Teach Tearmainn. She herself had grown up in a violent household, and ended up in violent relationship.

“It’s a cycle that goes on and on, if we’re not willing to look at it, talk about it and say ‘This is not tolerable’.”

AVA (46) HAD A HAPPY MARRIAGE until her husband announced, one morning six years ago: “There is no us any more.”

“From then he became a completely different person. I found out later he had another woman. I think he decided in his head that he didn’t want to lose anything.

“He wanted this woman, he wanted the house and the kids and he wanted me to just disappear. He turned into a complete bully.”

They had been married for 13 years and had four children, including a three-month-old daughter.

“He started going out straight after dinner, not coming home until after midnight and sleeping on the couch. I was in shock. He had been my hero, my knight. I wanted us to go to counselling and he wasn’t interested. He said I should be in counselling. I had these diaries I kept and he stole them and he started saying I was an unfit mother and had to leave the house.”

There were a number of incidents where he took the children away for weekends and wouldn’t allow her to join them, even insisting on taking the infant while Ava was still breastfeeding. Once he took them away having excited them about a “big surprise”. “All the kids came back very upset. He had brought them to his new house, to meet his new partner and the big surprise was a new television.”

Another time she went to the local HSE office to ask why she had not yet received a respite cheque for their son (who has a disability) to find her husband had cashed it weeks before.

He insisted she and the children all be psychologically assessed; he refused to return the children’s passports, so Ava had to go to court two days before she was due to fly abroad to have them returned; he had to be escorted from a mediation hearing by staff as he was becoming too belligerent and he has refused to pay maintenance, despite a court order to do so, and he now owes her €17,000.

It was through counselling that she was referred to the outreach service of the Mayo Women’s Refuge, in Castlebar.

“This is a totally emotionally abusive guy who just wanted Ava to disappear. The more he couldn’t get his way the more abusive he became,” says Carmel Burke.

Ava is now still in her family home with her children and they spend time with their father. “He still refuses to converse with me. It’s all by text and he still changes plans without consulting me. I try to have as little as I can to do with him. If I tried to work out why he does all this I’d drive myself daft. For my own sanity I have to just leave him to it.”

MAEVE (28), A BRIGHT, BUBBLY WOMAN from a wealthy family in Co Mayo, fell “madly in love” with a man when she was 16, a man who would later throw her against walls, throw her to the ground, bruise her arms, make her walk up and down a beach three days after giving birth “to lose the weight”, who told her she was “disgusting” and who made her “terrified” to have family visit or to see friends.

He was sporadically violent from the beginning. “One night he walked into the bar where I was with my friends and a lot of them were fellas. He walked out. I ran after him and he grabbed me, threw me up against a wall and threw me to the ground. There was blood all down my face and I couldn’t open one of my eyes. I was brought to hospital.

“He told me it was my fault, that if I hadn’t been there with all those fellas it wouldn’t have happened. I thought he might be right, that it was my fault. And I was so in love I forgave him.”

When she became pregnant with their second child, “he got really bad”.

“He’d grab me and hit me . . . On one hospital visit a midwife asked me what the bruises were on my arm, but I told her myself and a friend had just been playing. She told me years after she hadn’t believed me.”

After having the baby, Maeve became depressed and lonely, and asked his mother for advice. “She told me to bear with it. I think she had had to put up with being badly treated by her husband.”

Her own mother had died years earlier, while she did not tell her father about the abuse. She had lost touch with her friends as he wouldn’t let her see them.

It was her father in the end who helped her escape. She left with the two boys and got in touch with Mayo Women’s Refuge. She is now back at college and has a home with her sons. They see their father every second weekend and she is back in touch with her friends.

“I look back now and in some ways I feel sorry for him. Everything he used to accuse me of, of being selfish, unfaithful, lazy – he was talking about himself . . . It took getting away from him to see that.”

Safe Ireland
Next month, Safe Ireland will publish a guide to helping a woman who is suspected to be suffering from domestic abuse. It advises: approach her in an understanding, non-blaming way; Tell her that no-one deserves to be threatened or beaten, despite what her abuser has told her. Support her as a friend. Be a good listener. Allow her to make her own decisions, even if it means she isn’t ready to leave the relationship.

Women’s Aid
10am–10pm 1800 341 900
Rape Crisis Centre
1800 778 888
 Dublin ~ Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Gender imbalance in public life highlighted ahead of Women's Day

Marking International Women's Day are Deirdre Campbell from Women's Aid, Tina Roche of the Community Foundation for Ireland and Madeline Hawke from the Irish Feminist Network.(Jason Clarke Photography)

Series of postcards from the archives of the National Library documenting the lives of women at the turn of the 20th century


THE REPRESENTATION of women in Irish public life remains “pathetic and embarrassing” for a modern nation, the chief executive of the National Women’s Council of Ireland has said.

As a day of celebration and resolution gets under way across the State today, with events to mark the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, Susan McKay said while great strides had been made for Irish women, the fact that fewer than 17 per cent of new TDs were women was a reminder that true equality was a distant aspiration.

“We commend the new coalition for reversing the cut to the minimum wage, for promising legislation to tackle Ireland’s outrageous levels of domestic and sexual violence, and for committing itself to ending the effective exclusion of women from politics,” she said.

“And we are glad that some women with a strong record of support for women’s equality, including Joan Burton, Frances Fitzgerald and Jan O’Sullivan, look set to have positions in which they can make real changes, including insisting that we need legislation to get more women into the Dáil.”

The council will this morning publish a women’s charter for equality, which will highlight, among other facts, that women do most unpaid care work; are concentrated in low-paid and part-time jobs; and account for 92 per cent of lone parents, a group which has the highest poverty risk rate, at 36.4 per cent.

The charter will call on organisations to “include a strong, explicit focus on the needs of women” in their strategies and policies.

At noon in the National Library, at an event titled That Far Off Thing, prominent women such as artist Alice Maher and theatre director Lynn Parker will celebrate women’s work “in and for Ireland”.

The title comes from a quote by the early 20th century Northern Irish feminist and poet Alice Milligan – “Freedom is as yet to all appearances a far off thing” – and the event will feature a tour of an exhibition about Milligan.

Self Help Ireland is urging people to remember the women of Africa and to sign the “Change Her Life” petition, which calls on western governments to guarantee African women a specific portion of international agricultural aid.

Women in Africa get a “raw deal”, doing up to 80 per cent of all farm work, but receiving as little as 5 per cent of available support, such as tools, advice, seeds, credit and training, says Ray Jordan of the organisation.

“This is not about asking for more money. It’s about doing more with the money we have. Studies have shown that if African women farmers receive the same supports as their male counterparts, food production increases by 20 per cent.”

The petition is online HERE

In the Central Library at the Ilac Centre, at 1pm, Mary Cullen, lecturer in modern history at NUI Maynooth, will deliver a lecture on the history of the suffrage movement in Ireland.

At noon, in Bray, Co Wicklow, 100 balloons will be released to mark 100 years of International Women’s Day, at the steps of the Holy Redeemer Church.

In Cork this evening, Solidarity Books will be offering a free meal at 6pm in Fionbarras pub on Douglas Street, followed by a talk at 7pm by Margaret O’Regan on the struggle for contraception in Ireland, followed at 8pm by a talk by Nicola Morry on the origins of International Women’s Day.

In Drogheda, Co Louth, the Connect Family Resource Centre “welcomes all women for a morning of talks, treats and pampering” at its resource centre at the Moneymore Estate.

Sligo Family Resource Centre will be offering pancakes to celebrate the day from 10am.

Pancakes are also being served in Waterville, Co Kerry at 7.30pm at Teach Amergin, by the Southwest Kerry Women’s Association.

This will be followed by a screening of the movie Eat, Pray, Love. In Portlaoise, the Laois branch of Amnesty International Ireland will host a literary and music evening in Kavanagh’s bar, Main Street at 8pm.

At 3pm the Migrant Rights Centre of Ireland is hosting a discussion at Dublin City Council offices in Wood Quay, on the International Labour Organisation’s campaign for decent working conditions for domestic workers, the vast majority of whom are women.

All events are free.

Day of celebration: history of the event

INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’s Day 2011 will be marked by more than 1,600 events in scores of countries around the globe and is an official holiday in about 25 of them.

The day aims to honour women’s achievements and celebrate their contributions, past and present, in all walks of life, including the economic, political and social spheres, and highlight outstanding issues affecting women in particular.

The day has its origins in the socialist movement in the early decades of the 20th century, prompted in large measure by the demand for voting rights for women. That campaign gathered momentum in the closing decades of the 19th century, partly by the consequences of the industrial revolution which saw women inducted into the labour force as never before in countries such as Britain, Germany and the United States.

In the US in 1908, some 15,000 women marched through New York demanding shorter hours, better pay and voting rights. The following year, the Socialist Party of America declared the first National Woman’s Day, which fell on February 28th and was observed in the US until 1913.

The progenitor of International Women’s Day emerged in Europe in the form of an international women’s conference held in Copenhagen in 1910 by the Second International, an organisation of socialist and labour parties founded in Paris in 1889. At that conference, a German woman, Clara Zetkin, who led the “women’s office” for the Social Democratic Party in Germany, called for the creation of an international women’s day, a day on which every year, in every country, women would press their demands.

The suggestion was passed unanimously by 100 women from 17 countries, representing unions, socialist parties, working women’s clubs, and including the first three women elected to the Finnish parliament. The first International Women’s Day was March 19th, 1911 but in 1913, it was moved to March 8th.

From its birth within the socialist movement, the day has become a global phenomenon and is now recognised by the United Nations and has its own website,

Zetkin’s political trajectory took her from the Social Democratic Party to the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany and to its far-left wing, the Spartacist League, which later became the Communist Party of Germany.

In August 1932, as the chairwoman of the Reichstag by seniority, she called for people to fight National Socialism. When Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist German Workers Party took over power and banned the Communist Party, Zetkin went into exile in the Soviet Union, where she died in 1933, aged 75.