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We must not fail women when they are most vulnerable to violence

This week’s downgrading of services at the Wexford Women’s Refuge is a sorry reminder of the low priority given to women’s and children’s wellbeing in Ireland.

The closure of the refuge’s overnight service, the only such service in the entire county, for 13 weeks, was carried out despite the fact that during the same period last year, the refuge functioned at full capacity and still had to turn away 41 women and 86 children. At the 11th hour an emergency service has been put in place, meaning that a staff member will answer a 24-hour phone number and try to find alternative accommodation for women who contact the refuge from 9pm to 9am.

This is a piecemeal concession to the widespread opposition to the closure from across the community, rather than a serious response to the needs of those fleeing violence. Abysmal record The sad truth is that Ireland has an abysmal record of providing adequate services for women and children wishing to escape violence. Safe Ireland’s most recent national data reveals that in 2011 alone, women and children could not be accommodated on 2,573 occasions as the refuge was either full, or there simply was no refuge in their area. In the same year, four out of five women had to be turned away from Dublin service Sonas Housing, while DVAS, a service in Leitrim, Sligo and west Cavan, reports that one out of two women in need of their services has to return to their abuser.

It is a fact that one in five women have been subjected to domestic violence in Ireland. NGOs providing services to women experiencing domestic and sexual violence are witnessing an unprecedented growth in demand for their services. The crisis in the provision of domestic violence services is being played out in the context of increasing funding restrictions.

Dundalk women’s refuge has recently seen a minimum cut of 53 per cent to its budget, and is facing permanent closure, despite having already turned away more than 180 women this year. The severe shortage in services is not isolated to certain areas of the country, but is a systemic problem. Ireland only provides one-third of the EU recommended refuge places of one per 10,000 of the population.

We remain one of a minority of countries that have not yet signed the European convention on violence against women and domestic violence. The convention recognises violence against women as a violation of their human rights, and includes several provisions, including, in article 23, establishment of “appropriate, easily accessible shelters in sufficient numbers to provide safe accommodation for . . . victims”.

In June, I asked Minister for Justice Alan Shatter if Ireland would be signing the convention before the end of our EU presidency. He replied: “I do not envisage this legislation will be published prior to 2014 because of the major legislative agenda and some of the other areas we are dealing with and addressing in the family law area”.

Given that Ireland is not even maintaining its limited service provision, but is actually diminishing it, might it be possible that the State’s reluctance to sign the convention lies in its inability to provide adequate services?

Whatever the reason, the immediate effects of State failure to prioritise the safety of women and children are severely felt by those seeking refuge from violence. Where are those turned away to go?

The most dangerous time for many women is when they have left an abusive household, so failing them at this juncture further endangers them, as their health and lives are put at risk. It is easy to forget the reality of violence with talk of budget overruns or funding shortfalls. However, the litany of abuse endured by women and children in Ireland is not only real, but frightening. The Women’s Aid report for 2012 lists 16,200 disclosures of emotional, physical, sexual and financial abuse. This includes “being followed, stalked, and monitored while in the relationship and after”, “being punched and kicked while breast feeding”, “being gagged to stop the screaming”, “being drugged and sexually assaulted”, and “being denied access to household monies for heating, food and clothing for the children.”

Responding to this abuse in the face of funding pressures, local communities have fundraised and volunteered labour. And yet, the long-term viability of services can only be guaranteed through sustained investment and ring-fencing funds.

The downgrading and closure of services places additional pressures on other agencies. And one way or another the State will end up paying in the long term when it could have interrupted the cycle of violence at an early stage. Urgent intervention is now needed to guarantee, at a minimum, the maintenance of existing services and to reverse recent decisions that undermine same.

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Namaleaks is a project that seeks to uncover possible injustice and poor practice related to NAMA (National Asset Management Agency) and financial institutions in Ireland.


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