Abuse of women usually happens behind closed doors, not in the full media glare
Many victims of violence are paralysed by fear
A Women’s Aid protest outside Leinster House, drawing attention to the statistic that one in five women is affected by domestic violence. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
If the pictures of Charles Saatchi’s hand around his wife’s throat prove anything, they prove that domestic violence has no boundaries and doesn’t discriminate against class, age, race or religion.
There are some more subtle points to be made about the business. Starting with the fact that Saatchi is a smoker, which meant the couple were out of doors when the incident occurred. It’s easier to see what happens out of doors – I’ll come back to that.
In addition, Nigella Lawson, as a celebrity chef, is famous. Not just in London, but worldwide.
So the picture found a ready market, thereby bringing the issue of spousal violence into the public eye in a quite new way.
Saatchi’s first reaction to the furore over the affair was to discount it as a “playful tiff”, but on Monday he attended a London police station and accepted a caution for assault.
The sequence of events at the restaurant where the assault took place also illustrates one thing this famous woman seems to have in common with too many other women attacked by their partners: the fact that nobody intervened. The incident happened in public and none of those who saw it went over to Saatchi and told him to stop. Either they were afraid or they held back because this was “a domestic dispute”.
If the former, they were cowardly. If the latter, they’ve been misled by old traditions that “decently” close the door on what happens between a married couple, thereby often allowing the violent partner free rein.
It’s time we challenged the language we use about this issue too. A “domestic dispute” is when a couple argue.
It goes way beyond a “dispute” and becomes an assault when one of the two abandons words and becomes violent with the other.
I find it unacceptable that marital rape and other crimes are now commonly referred to as “domestic abuse”, which makes them sound much milder than they are. Let’s go back to terms like “rape” and “battery”.
What we saw in the Nigella photographs is happening in every town and village in our own country, usually behind closed front doors rather than in garden restaurants. Those closed doors hide the beatings. By the time the victims are physically able to go outside, they often feel so isolated and fearful that they tell nobody.
Women whose husbands “get physical” with them become cowed, feel that in some way they caused the violence and will do anything to make it stop.
Choked by fear
One of the saddest statistics in the 2012 Women’s Aid annual report is that 3,000 women last year summoned the courage to pick up the phone to their Helpline but were unable to speak.
They were, quite literally, choked by fear. Fearful of the consequences of asking for the help and support they so badly need, these women were paralysed by fear. Stifled. Silenced.
Caitríona Gleeson, Safe Ireland’s programme manager, has stressed the need for more support for women who leave their homes to escape emotional, physical, sexual and financial abuse.
It has been suggested that 1,686 women were accommodated in refuges in 2011 but that on 2,537 separate occasions women and/or children had to be turned away and sent to temporary accommodation or placed in Garda care. Gleeson makes the point that while the number of women and children seeking support and refuge from domestic violence is increasing steadily, the funding is not.
By European Council standards, it is estimated that Ireland meets about 30 per cent of the places required for victims escaping domestic violence. This puts an unacceptable number of women, who are experiencing abuse and who want to get out, in an impossible position.
Trapped and with nowhere to go, every day sees their confidence further knocked and their resolve beaten.
It doesn’t help that, in the family courts in Dolphin House, these women end up trying to make decisions about their lives and the lives of their children in the corner of a hallway or an empty doorway.
They’re often left in what can only be described as holding pens, with the perpetrator eyeballing them in a confined space – an incredibly intimidating experience.
Living with the abuser
On the flip side, the Central Court of Justice, which deals with real criminals, is a state-of-the-art building with impeccable facilities.
When consideration is given to the ease of access to free legal aid at each facility, the contrast is equally stark.
Defendants at the Central Court of Justice who cannot afford legal representation are awarded immediate access to free legal aid; women suffering domestic violence may have to wait for eight to 10 months for the same.
This forces them to live with their abuser in the meantime.
When commentators wonder aloud at the “indecision” shown by women victimised by violence in their homes, they might usefully take into account these limited options facing a woman who steels herself to take action.
Nigella Lawson has a well-established and popular public persona on both sides of the Atlantic, access with her children to alternative accommodation that’s more than acceptable, and the capacity to hire top-notch lawyers to vindicate her rights, if she so chooses.
That’s not the case for the overwhelming majority of women beaten senseless in their own homes in Ireland.
Mary Mitchell O’Connor is a Fine Gael TD representing Dún Laoghaire constituency