With domestic violence surging because of lockdown measures, Steph Hanlon looks at the response of the Irish government, and their role in debilitating the support sector before this crisis.
As cities and countries entered COVID-19 lockdown, incidents of domestic violence spiked. In France, reports of domestic violence have increased by 30% since lockdown on March 17th. As most people voluntarily stay home to save lives, those who live in abusive households, who cannot escape their abusers and cannot access support services, are facing an unthinkable reality.
At the beginning of April, a United Nations chief called for a domestic violence ‘ceasefire’ amid ‘horrifying global surge’. Secretary-General António Guterres delivered a public statement, asking governments to ‘put women’s safety first as they respond to the pandemic.’ Among his recommendations were shelters as essential services, increased investment in online services, and safe ways for women to seek support, without alerting their abusers.
In Ireland, a public awareness campaign was launched, alongside a Gardaí initiative, ‘Operation Faoisimh’, to respond quickly and robustly to reports, and €160,000 for frontline groups like Women’s Aid, Rape Crisis Centre, Ruhama and the Men’s Development Network.
The Courts Service and Legal Aid Board are giving priority to cases of domestic violence and a helpline has been set up for victims, to provide legal advice and representation in court.
While these measures may provide relief for some of those in need, they do not go far enough. Communal living spaces, such as refuges for victims of violence in the home, are high-risk sites for an outbreak of Covid 19. If the government were truly prioritising domestic violence victims, it would recognise that many refuges cannot currently provide adequate social distancing and isolation facilities.
But it is not just a recent failure of Irish government to prepare for the way in which lockdown could exacerbate domestic violence which has led to scenarios where cases are surging. The government has systematically crippled the support sector for years.
Ireland’s history of failing victims
Women in Ireland have been deterred from speaking out, seeking help or fleeing abusive homes for a long time in Ireland, because of the lack of options available. Most frontline domestic violence services are underfunded and unable to cope with the needs of women and children in danger. There are just 19 refuges – often full to capacity – and 38 domestic violence services in Ireland. Nine counties have no refuge at all, and these figures are far below European recommendations.
Although it is widely acknowledged that domestic violence is a leading cause of homelessness for women and children, it is not listed as such in Ireland, and those residing in emergency domestic violence refuges don’t feature in the monthly homelessness figures.
In fact, research by Safe Ireland and Focus Ireland estimates that Ireland’s housing crisis has been underestimated by over 4,000 women and children accommodated in emergency refuge, who are left out of monthly Department of Housing and Data figures.
The same homeless crisis sees women and their children forced to stay longer in refuges because of the lack of affordable or public housing, and the knock on effect makes it extremely difficult for domestic violence services to respond to new demand.
Despite the increase of intimate partner violence during major economic recessions, domestic violence services were amongst the hardest hit during the financial crisis in Ireland, witnessing eight years of austerity and devastating cuts to core funding.
Rape crises centres and domestic violence services experienced cuts of up to 38% since 2008, while the number of women accessing their services increased by 26% for the following six years. In 2015 alone, 4,796 requests for refuge could not be met in Ireland.
Government neglect of the sector continued post-recession, giving services no opportunity to recover; calls for funding restoration were ignored, and services continued to be hammered by cuts. They needed a bailout but it never came.
A government forced to act
Despite the introduction of legislation in 2018, the Irish criminal Justice system continues to fail victims of domestic violence today. Speaking about the new campaign this week, Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan told the public;
“I am very conscious that for victims of domestic abuse, home can be anything but a safe place,” Flanagan said. “That is why I want victims to know that they will continue to receive the highest priority from the civil and criminal justice system throughout this crisis. I want perpetrators to know that too.”
Indeed, this echoes statements made by the same Minister during a Dáil hearing on domestic violence in 2019, but the reality is that the need for well-funded and robust support services for survivors, including psychological care and economic resources, went unanswered for years under his government’s watch.
In 2018, 20,722 disclosures of domestic violence against women and children were made to domestic violence services, according to 2018 National Annual Statistics by Safe Ireland. These services were unable to meet over 3,256 requests for safe accommodation, as the Government starved funding to support services. Around nine requests a day for refuge had to be refused because the services were full. This means that nine women a day were turned away and forced to return to an abusive household.
Up until last month, people experiencing domestic violence were met with waiting lists, no access to local refuge, and having to travel to different counties to shelter.
The coronavirus crisis has revealed and exacerbated underlying, pre-existing symptoms of structural violence, whereby the Irish government decimated support services and perpetuated the kind of economic hardship which is proven to lead to increased instances of domestic violence.
And thus, the government has been forced to act; to introduce emergency measures. Given years of opportunity, they refused to act of their own volition.
The need for change couldn’t be clearer: proper investment in infrastructure to re-home women; solid and reliable state funding so that services can be resourced; a future whereby the Irish Tories in Fine Gael are never allowed return to rule the Dáil roost.
No return to normal
We cannot allow a return to the reality faced by domestic violence victims pre-pandemic. CSO figures published at the end of March showed that sexual offences have risen by 45% over the last five years – and these are just the offences that are reported.
A return would be intolerable, and undoubtedly worsened by the unstable future we are facing. Financial crisis has a tangible impact on domestic violence levels, and the fallout from a coronavirus recession will be damaging unless governments the world over are prepared to intervene to challenge the inherent aspects of the economy which pit profit against need.
Any direct reversion to neoliberalism seems unfeasible, according to socialist economist Brian O’Boyle, but clearly any attempt to implement small changes post-crisis, in order to get ‘back to normal as quickly as possible’ will not go far enough to allow for society which functions in the interests of vulnerable people and victims.
A society which is organised to provide public housing for victims of domestic violence, and fully funded, state-run services and refuges. If it is possible to provide emergency services in a crisis, there can be no justification for providing those services as the bare minimum post-crisis.