Brianna Walsh reports on the domestic violence in Ireland since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the shortfalls in services and support
The number of Covid-19 cases continue to rise this month and concerns for those most vulnerable are high, with a potential “Lockdown 2.0” looming. The prospect of another two months working from home may seem pleasurable for some, and pivotal for populations facing serious health risks. However, the equal impact of this pandemic upon Ireland’s flailing economy, mental health, and education system, is becoming contentious. The darkest underbelly may be that of domestic violence. As the virus closed in, so too did the walls surrounding victims of abuse and coercive control, leaving many confined to inescapable conditions with perpetrators earlier this year. Since May, the problem has remained persistent, with services straining to survive the “shadow pandemic” that is domestic violence.
The last reported statistics indicate a 25% rise in reports of domestic violence to An Garda Síochána during lockdown, while Women’s Aid estimated a 39% spike in calls to their helpline, according to The Irish Times. Possible contributors to this include the isolation involved with stay home policies, relationship strains as a result, unemployment, and increased alcohol consumption according to the Oireachtas Library and Research Service.
A source within the Gardaí confirmed that this growth “hasn’t eased off a huge amount since”, holding that domestic abuse “still poses a significant problem” of recent times. The source confirmed that Operation Faoiseamh, a Garda initiative launched at the beginning of April to respond to this anticipated escalation, has continued to operate into a Phase Three. The strategy’s cited aim is to avert any loss of life, while supporting and protecting those affected during what is an extraordinary time. Feedback from concerned victims has been “overwhelmingly positive.” The source assured The University Observer that additional resources remain allocated to the specific task of enforcing barring orders, ensuring that a “pro-arrest policy” is prioritised. It was gravely noted that “it takes very little for something to escalate from a domestic to full blown homicide”.
Edel Hackett, PR Specialist and Consultant at Safe Ireland, a charity which works in the area of domestic violence, disclosed the latest figures from the umbrella organisation. Almost 21,000 calls have been recorded across all helplines in the 4-month period from March to June, although this figure has yet to be compared to previous years. She adduced the reported 40% rise from Women’s Aid, with a further 60% upsurge amongst smaller services. All services remained open during the lockdown period. The inaccessibility that came from being trapped 24/7 with an abuser meant that outreach was “eerily silent” initially, but by July there was a significant increase in women coming forward, particularly those with children. While the isolation associated with lockdown provided barriers, the close environment equally made abusive situations more intolerable, with Hackett concluding that eventually, “resilience runs out”.
She was quick to express that the pandemic did not cause the issue; it merely exacerbated it and “exposed the frailties of the system in place to respond.” Pandemic or no pandemic, what the state is doing, and has been doing, is not enough. Safe Ireland have been campaigning for the allocation of a lead minister, tasked with the particular duty of facilitating the 3 R’s: Reaching across government departments, holding Responsibility for this matter and ensuring the provision of adequate Resources. Hackett urged how imperative it is to “join the dots” and secure the holistic protection of women across all sectors on the road to recovery, from social protection, to housing, to education, healthcare, and criminal justice.
The shortfalls of the current system were only emphasised as a result of the Coronavirus, with available safe accommodation for survivors projected as a continuous barrier if another lockdown hits. Ireland only has one third of the recommended capacity of refuge, many of which are communal and thus unsuitable in the context of the pandemic. The volume of emergency services was reduced by 25% to adhere to social distancing measures. Despite resource constraints, local County Councils searched for innovative means to respond to the problem. Overseas, French and German municipalities repurposed empty hotel rooms to provide more appropriate shelter for victims. Hackett contends that collective refuge is a “19th century service for a 21st century problem” and what women really need is modern, supported accommodation of their own.
Andrea McDermott, Social Care Team Leader at Men’s Aid Ireland, highlighted the disproportionate effect these failures could have on male victims. Noting a similar increase in calls to their phone lines, Men’s Aid also faced the closure of all face to face services during lockdown. Shockingly, there are no male refuge centres available in Ireland, despite 1 in 7 men experiencing domestic abuse. Stigma already largely prevents men from seeking help, with only 5% of victims reporting crimes against them. The addition of the Coronavirus presented further barriers, with sufferers suddenly having nowhere to go. No safe beds and no possibility of taking themselves and often, their children, to the homes of relatives. McDermott, who has worked with women and children in the past, indicated that “wrap around services” are urgently needed for men too.
Positively, the pandemic provided an opportunity to raise awareness of the severity of this issue and the tireless efforts of the services that are in place. The Irish Women in Harmony performance of “Dreams” not only reached every screen in the country, the campaign successfully raised over €200,000 for Safe Ireland. The charity also welcomes the government commitment to audit the “fractured” infrastructure in place, eager for an urgent, independent analysis and effective implementation.
It is important to note that domestic violence can affect anybody, of any age, gender or sexuality. More adequately termed, “coercive control” can begin early in a relationship and involves the prolonged pattern of behaviour, emotional, financial and/or physical, that “makes a survivor's life smaller.” “COVID 19 hasn’t gone away, domestic violence hasn’t gone away either.” Despite a difficult lockdown and the structural restraints in place, Edel Hackett is hopeful as services prepare for the final, tough months of 2020.
If you feel concerned that you, or somebody you care for, are affected by this issue in even a minor way, a host of services are available to provide support.
Women’s Aid National Freephone Helpline: 1800 341 900.
A full list of local services and helplines available at www.safeireland.ie .
Men’s Aid are reachable at www.mensaid.ie firstname.lastname@example.org , or 015543811
Contact your local Garda Station.
Boots Pharmacy “Safe Space” Scheme and Total Health Pharmacy’s “Gateway to Safety” offer private consultation spaces for you in any of their stores to contact services if you cannot do it from home.