Women on the helpline will be there to answer the phone
‘No one should have to spend Christmas or any day of their lives like these women’
Naoimi Oldenburg, one of the volunteers on the Women’s Aid Helpline over the Christmas period. Photograph: Eric Luke
Emma Farrell, one of the volunteers on the Women’s Aid Helpline over the Christmas period. Photograph: Eric Luke
For some women, the countdown to Christmas can be terrifying. Women experiencing domestic abuse say that the extra stress of the festive season triggers more frequent and more severe abuse from their partners, Margaret Martin, director of domestic violence charity Women’s Aid told The Irish Times.
“For most of us, Christmas is a time for celebration and for making happy memories, but for many women, Christmas doesn’t mean that physical, emotional, sexual and financial abuse go away. Many women will work very hard to keep some semblance of normality for their children this Christmas,” said Martin.
This year, for the first time, Women’s Aid will operate its helpline on Christmas Day. It will be open 24 hours a day and is free.
Many women “work very hard to maintain the status quo, to keep some semblance of normality for their children at Christmas”, said Martin, but if any woman wants to call, at any time, the women who staff the helpline will be there to answer the phone. We talked to some of the women who will take those calls.
Naomi Naomi expects to hear the same things women have been saying in the lead-up to the festive season, but she says that there is increased stress at Christmas.
“There’s a lot of focus on family and togetherness and women feel they are responsible for the family having a happy Christmas. With added financial stress, there tends to be more violence in the holiday period for all those reasons.”
As people keep very different hours during holidays, women will ring the helpline after everyone is in bed or when their partner has gone out, she says.
Naomi has given up a little bit of her Christmas to offer “a listening ear to women who are going through a hard time.” There is a lot of listening, she says. “We will be able to give information on Christmas Day, but it can’t be acted upon until the courts are back. We do give information so women can ring the Garda if they need to, though.”
The night before Christmas, when the children are in bed, can be when women call, she says. They will tell her about the violence and physical abuse that has occurred recently. “They might call worried about whether their children will have a good time at Christmas because their parents are fighting. They internalise a lot of the blame and they are told that they are indeed to blame for any mistakes that happen around Christmas.”
So what will she say to women who call?
“No one should have to spend Christmas or any day of their lives like these women are. No one deserves to be blamed for everything that goes wrong at Christmas. It is not their fault. This is not your fault.”
And, no, she won’t regret giving up her time at Christmas. “It is only a few hours of your time and it makes a great difference to someone who is in a terrible situation.”
Given that Naomi may have to listen to something quite challenging, how will she have a merry little Christmas? “I might eat a chocolate from my Advent Calendar when I get home,” she says. “I think I will deserve it.”
Emma “On Christmas Day, like most women in Ireland, I suspect that victims of domestic abuse are thinking of everybody but themselves,” says Emma. “They are pretending to family that everything is okay. They are making sure that their kids are happy. They are trying very hard to prevent an incident of abuse on what should be such a special day for their kids.”
Talking to someone who will not judge you is invaluable, she says. “If a woman calls Women’s Aid, she knows that we will believe her straight away. We are not going to tell her what to do. If she wants options, we will give them to her, but it is her decision. I hope we offer a bit of calm in the storm of what Christmas can be sometimes.”
So why is Emma ready to give up some of her Christmas?
“I gain far more than I give on the helpline. Far, far more. These women are just incredible. When you think that the objective of a perpetrator is to erode all of a woman’s self esteem, to make her feel worthless. In the face of all that pressure most of us would be at our worst; these women somehow find the strength to do incredible things, so I’m just inspired by them.”
Margaret Margaret says that “in some ways a terrible situation can be more terrible at Christmas”.
The supports women find in everyday situations – in the hairdresser, the schoolyard or at work – aren’t there at Christmas, she says. “In a situation of abuse, though, it is always business as usual. It never stops, so the calls will keep coming. The abuse doesn’t stop, so the reasons that women ring any day of the year don’t stop just because it is Christmas.”
How do women find time to ring, we ask? “That is more difficult when there are people in the house, but the fact that we are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week helps women to find a time,” says Margaret.
It would be quite normal that people do not ring when they are being assaulted. In that situation, a woman will call the Garda, or we will suggest they ring the Garda. We never tell women what to do. Sometimes a woman will also ring because she has a quiet moment.”
Margaret wants to let any woman who might call know that “Women’s Aid has not stopped believing in her.”
“Women say all the time, ‘thank you for believing me’.” It makes working at Christmas worth it, says Margaret. “It is the season that belief really matters.”
Kathryn Christmas can be a stressful time for everyone, says Kathryn, “ so women experiencing violence really need support. They need someone to talk to, so it is great that the helpline is now open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. A woman might be able to find five or 10 minutes to reach out and find some support for whatever she might be going through – even if it is in the middle of the night when everyone has gone to bed.”
Christmas is a time for family, says Kathryn, but Christmas is also a “very difficult time for many people – especially for those suffering abuse”.
She has no problem staffing the helpline at Christmas. “Christmas is a time for reaching out to people who need support and that is as important as the other trappings that we have around Christmas. It is not just about trees and tinsel.”
Domestic abuse doesn’t stop on Christmas Day, she says. “Domestic abuse doesn’t stop for anything and it can be worse around that time, so I think it is extremely important that we are there for women on that day.
“You don’t know when a woman will need that call, so it is really important to be there.” Some names have been changed Women’s Aid 24hr National Freephone Helpline - 1800 341 900 - is open 24 hours every day including Christmas Day. www.womensaid.ie
Women’s Aid is looking for volunteers for the Helpline, visit www.womensaid.ie/services for details. Donate to Women’s Aid at www.womensaid.ie/donate