Domestic abuse in North: ‘Violence against women was unspoken’

‘Developing relationship with police was catalyst for some of the changes happening’

Marie Brown of Foyle Women’s Aid: When she joined Women’s Aid, social stigma from church and state – and the attitude that they were breaking up families – meant that “we were pretty much outcasts, staff and all”.

Marie Brown of Foyle Women’s Aid: When she joined Women’s Aid, social stigma from church and state – and the attitude that they were breaking up families – meant that “we were pretty much outcasts, staff and all”.

 

Irene Wilson was walking towards her front door when her then husband attacked her. “He lunged towards me, and I’ll never forget the anger. His eyeballs were bulging, and he hit me.

“My head bounced off a mahogany banister, and that’s when I sustained a severed artery,” remembers Wilson, who managed to get to her telephone to call 999 even though blood was was pumping from her head.

“When I was making the call – and this is what haunts me – he was threatening me in the background. I had a wee cat, and he was saying he was going to get my cat.”

Later, she was told she had only survived because she had been sitting up.

Had she been lying down, she would have died from blood loss within minutes. In 2009 her ex-husband was convicted of grievous bodily harm and given a suspended prison sentence.

Today, Wilson volunteers in Foyle Women’s Aid in Derry, one of the many women who have made an impact on its director, Marie Brown, since she joined it as a counsellor 25 years ago.

“Violence against women was unspoken. It was ignored.

“I had worked as a nurse previously, and we used to have a woman who came in every night through A&E, everybody knew her.

“It was domestic violence, but when I think now of the response we had to her – nobody knew about it, there was no training, and nobody spoke about it.”

Social stigma

When she joined Women’s Aid, social stigma from church and state – and the attitude that they were breaking up families – meant that “we were pretty much outcasts, staff and all”.

“There was no policing response,” is how Brown describes the attitude of the RUC at the time.

“Women didn’t ring the police, and if you did ring two Saracens turned up, and within those areas it just wouldn’t have been allowed to so women were on the backburner, there was no justice for women.”

She recalls inviting the police to their women’s refuge for the first time in 1994, and seeing officers in tears.

Brown became part of a team which trained every police station in Northern Ireland about domestic violence – and faced threats from republican paramilitaries for doing so.

Catalyst

“Developing that relationship [with the police] was hugely important, and it was a catalyst for some of the change that was happening and then there were the changes happening within policing itself so, in fairness, I think they were the organisation that changed most in terms of domestic violence.”

Wilson is full of praise for the support she received from the police. She now attends court on behalf of Foyle Women’s Aid, supporting other women through the court process.

“With me it started off with mental abuse. I knew he had a bit of a temper, but within the first year of married life I started to see a change. He would have come in drunk, and been verbally abusive.

“If you’re in a violent relationship get out, because there’s support there, more so now than there was 10 years ago.

“It was a taboo subject. I was married, Presbyterian, a churchgoer – it would have been embarrassing. That’s not an issue any more.”

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