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29 July 1999 Edition

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Behind Closed Doors

By Michael Pierse

Dubliner Thomas Gillooly was jailed for eleven years last Friday, having been convicted of continually raping and beating his wife, Ann-Marie, over a five-year period. Ann-Marie had been attacked with weapons, strangled, severely beaten, raped and forced into prostitution throughout those harrowing years and still fears for her safety. However, the soundbite media attention that followed Gillooly's sentencing contrasts with the paltry attention paid to the issue of domestic violence in Ireland generally.

``The media go through phases'', says Denise Charlton, Director of Women's Aid. ``There is a real reluctance in Ireland to look at the high level of violence towards women and children.'' From the experience of the organisation's workers, there is also a lack of awareness among teenagers and young adults of the issue and, Denise says ``it seems to be getting worse''.

Where domestic violence is concerned, many Irish people prefer to bury their heads in the sand rather than consider the consequences of what's going on next door.

     
Where domestic violence is concerned, many Irish people prefer to bury their heads in the sand rather than consider the consequences of what's going on next-door
``They do play a positive role as well'', Charlton said of the media and general broadcasting services in Ireland. In 1994, during and after the screening of Roddy Doyle's TV drama `The Family', the number of calls to the Women's Aid National Freephone Helpline doubled when their phone number was advertised extensively throughout the national media. Women seeking help are likely to contact between seven and ten places before getting support, underlining the need for information on the issue. Though the organisation does not have the resources for a national media campaign, the last of which was funded privately, calls to the freephone number (listed below) have increased by an average of 1,000 per annum since 1994.

Despite the sparse media coverage of the issue, possibly due to the diversion of more and more child sexual abuse cases before the courts, domestic violence is becoming more visible in Ireland. In a research study commissioned by Women's Aid this year entitled `Safety and Sanctions', it was calculated that the district courts dispose of over 5,000 barring order applications and 2,000 safety applications each year. Gardaí are also call out to the scene of over 4,000 incidents of domestic violence a year. Over the last four years, at least six women each year have been murdered by husbands, partners or ex-partners in Ireland. For 50 to 60 percent of legal applications, the grounds involved physical violence. This included long histories of repeated attacks, physical injury, threats to kill and violence during pregnancy.

``The last thing they talk about is sexual abuse,'' Charlton explained. International research indicates that sexual violence perpetrated by intimate male partners is much more prevalent than legal records would suggest. In a British study (Painter 1991), one in seven married women surveyed claimed they had been coerced into sex or raped and this rose to one in three women for those separated and divorced. Ninety-one percent of all sexually abused female partners had told no one.
     
There's no such thing as a type of woman - it can happen to any woman

Labour TD Liz McManus, who ran the Women's Refuge Centre in Bray for 17 years, said in 1996 that ``it is the passive women who end up getting battered''. ``That's rubbish,'' says Denise Charlton. ``There's no such thing as a type of woman - it can happen to any woman,'' she told An Phoblacht. Charlton also rejects any sociological excuses for domestic violence. ``Alcoholism or unemployment cannot be used as reasons for domestic brutality,'' she asserted. Such reasoning, she believes, leads to a tacit tolerance of something which should always be met with indignation.

``There is a correlation between domestic violence and child abuse,'' she explained, ``although we don't know enough about how children are affected''. Many men attack their partners so as to keep them from reporting the abuse of a child. In the `Safety and Sanctions' report, children had witnessed the violence in approximately 60 per cent of cases. Research illustrates that children who witness domestic violence risk injury if they get in the way of an attack or attempt to intervene to protect their mother. The emotional effects are often more significant, with children becoming fearful and withdrawn, performing poorly in school and having sleeping problems.

So, what happens when women finally take the courage to fight back via the legal system? In Ann-Marie Gillooly's case, her husband broke eight barring orders before he was finally taken into custody. Statistics suggest that barring orders are breached in between 12 to 15 percent of cases. The Women's Aid report states that ``many women experiencing serious violence are withdrawing applications and the report recommends that support and safety measures for women need to be put in place''. Information from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law reform indicates that barring orders granted as a percentage of applications ranged from between 35 and 53 percent between 1980 and 1997, with the figure for 1996/1997 at 41 percent. Some women, the report says, use the application as a threat in an attempt to reform their partner's behaviour. Interviews with women using support services and their service providers indicate that many women are afraid that legal action will result in further violence. In some rural areas, it is customary to release the accused on `station bail' - which, unlike standard bail terms, has no attached conditions warding off further violence. Other negative consequences which may follow are losing custody of children and the exposure in court of a woman's personal details, such as a prior history of sexual abuse or their adult sexual history. Confronting a technical, jargon-laden legal system can be intimidating, especially for someone whose self-esteem has been undermined by repeated abuse. Support services for women have been proven to reduce the incidents of women withdrawing their barring order applications.

Help for women is available. Charlton would encourage those who know of a situation where domestic violence is ongoing to intervene, whether by handing the victim a Women's Aid phone number or by calling the Gardaí. It certainly should not be ignored.Women's Aid provides support, refuge and general advice for women in such situations.
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An Phoblacht
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