Christmas in a women’s refuge: ‘We don’t turn anyone away’
‘I was exhausted, and I slept so fast and so hard. It was the best night of my life’
A resident with baby at Aoibhneas domestic abuse support for women and children. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
No woman ever dreams of spending Christmas in a refuge. But Kate, who is heavily pregnant, doesn’t want to be anywhere else.
“I arrived shaking and afraid but this place has become my home,” she says. “I will be here for Christmas because it’s too hard to get into homeless accommodation at this time of year.”
Women who are in the refuge in early December usually stay for Christmas, says Nieve White, , social care leader at Aoibhneas. So what will Christmas day be like?
“There will be staff here right through Christmas. We will have a calendar of events running from December 16th, including Christmas jumper day, baking and getting the children to decorate the building. We give our women vouchers to purchase what they want for Christmas and, if they have a particular tradition – whether a turkey stuffing or hanging a stocking – we encourage them to observe it. They ask for a wishlist of what the kids want from Santa and we put together a little hamper for the mums as well.
“Christmas morning is hectic and exciting, like any other home. Many of the staff love the excitement of Christmas Eve and the fun of getting dinner. We acknowledge it is a sad time for many of the women, but we do all we can to make it as happy and busy as possible. Everyone chips in and we have a laugh together.”
Because tensions can come to the boil over Christmas, the refuge is at its busiest. “But we don’t turn anyone away. Any woman who arrives at our door is given a cup of tea and a bit of food. If we’re full, we link in with other refuges and, if we have to, we will put up a cot and pull out extra beds. We are very inventive and we always make sure to find a way to help every woman.”
But refuges operate all year round – and the problems that force women into them are not confined to Christmas.
It was midnight one night in Dublin, and Lena stood outside Busáras with two small children. She was on her way to a women’s refuge, fleeing from Waterford and from Anton, a man who had repeatedly beaten and choked her. Her taxi was late and she had no buggy for her little boy. A drunken man started trying to grope at her.
“I wondered if I had made a mistake,” she says. “What was I doing here? Then a Garda car stopped me and asked if I knew this man, and whether I was okay. They helped me and the children into the car and brought us to the refuge. I was exhausted, and I slept so fast and so hard. It was the best night of my life. I woke up feeling safe.”
Lena’s family are one of 128 who, in 2018, sought refuge in Aoibhneas, a purpose-built, 10-bedroom unit for women trying to escape domestic abuse. The refuge is in north county Dublin but, to avoid the women being found by the men they are fleeing, its exact location is kept confidential.
Lena recalls several occasions where Anton nearly strangled her in front of her daughter and the baby they had together. She thought she was going to die and that her children were in grave danger.
Recent figures from Women’s Aid show that 230 women have been killed and 16 children died alongside their mothers since records began in 1996. This year, five women have died violently so far, and four of them were killed in their own homes. In 2018, Women’s Aid recorded almost 17,000 disclosures of domestic abuse.
Domestic abuse can be physical, emotional, financial, sexual, digital (men putting trackers on women’s cars or phones, or installing spy cameras in the house) or a combination of all of these.
Like many women with violent partners, Lena’s relationship had seemed to start off well. “He was so caring. He brought me flowers and wouldn’t allow anyone to say a bad word to me. He was great with my daughter. Then he lost his job and started drinking more and becoming aggressive with me. He undermined me and made me think I could not cope without him.”
Martha, who is currently resident at Aoibhneas with her baby, says that her ex initially seemed like “a gentleman, the kindest man, everyone loved him and nothing seemed wrong until just before our [child] was born. But late in my pregnancy, he lost his temper at a get-together we were hosting for friends and started a fight with a guest; it seemed to come out of nowhere. During this, he hit me in the stomach.”
Nieve White, social care leader at Aoibhneas, says that several of the current residents at Aoibhneas are pregnant, and points to numerous international studies showing that pregnant women are at an increased risk of domestic abuse.
Lena wasn’t surprised when her ex-partner first hit her. “His friend was over, and my little girl accidentally knocked down a vase. He screamed and her and, when I told him not to speak to my child like that, he slapped me in the face and said ‘Don’t ever speak back to me in front of other people.’”
What did the friend say?
“If you don’t want to be with this woman, leave her, but you shouldn’t beat her. After that, the friend drifted off, but he never helped me. A lot of people saw the abuse and never helped me; instead, they went off drinking with him.”
Maria, another former resident, says that people seemed reluctant to intervene when her relationship deteriorated and her husband went from caring to neglectful to violent, drunken and addicted to cannabis. “One evening, he attacked me in front of our two kids. I ran out on the road with the kids, crying for help. But nobody helped.”
Maria is equally critical of the Garda response. “After he broke my finger, the Garda came, but they didn’t arrest him because I didn’t have a safety order. As soon as they left, he assaulted me again. I called them again. They came back and did arrest him – but only because he was shouting on the street, not because he had assaulted a woman.”
Two other women at the refuge say they had more positive experiences with the Garda, including Kate. “When I called the gardaí, they immediately told me I could go to a refuge and brought me there. I felt supported by them.”
Aoibhneas chief executive Emma Reidy, who also sits on the board of umbrella body Safe Ireland, says that while she has multiple accounts of gardaí being supportive and kind, the response can be inconsistent.
Maria says that moving into the refuge was difficult but, along with the other women, she felt “safe”. “I told the children it was a hotel and they were happy there, because they had other kids to play with. The girls [26 of the 28 staff are female] were so good to us. There was a big kitchen that we can all cook in and a communal sitting room where we can hang out.”
“It has to be a home any of us would live in,” says White. “We keep the presses stocked so the women don’t have to ask for anything.”
Security in the building is subtle but tight, and there are a number of mechanisms which are used to keep women safe, both in and out of refuge. Men have been known to turn up at refuges in search of the women, and women have sometimes had to move to a new refuge if they are found.
“Women stay for about six to eight weeks on average, but that can be longer or shorter,” says White.
There is no typical profile in a women’s refuge, says White. “Middle-class women are as likely to seek refuge as working-class women, because they’re all seeking a safe place where they can regroup and gather their thoughts. Currently, three of our 10 residents are non-Irish.”
Some of the women are escaping from Islamic households where they can be under constant vigilance and control, although this is not the norm in Irish Muslim homes. Aoibhneas has strong links with the Muslim Sisters of Ireland and Amal, who help provide prayer mats, halal food, a Koran and simple support. “Their faith keeps them going and we support them in that,” says White.
Women can be dissuaded from leaving domestic abuse because they fear homelessness, says Reidy. “Women who should be recovering from trauma are forced to access homeless accommodation, and some hostels can be very unsuitable. They come so far to get help, and are told to ‘be strong’ and ‘leave’, but the system also tells them to go back to the abuser. It is a national scandal.”
Aoibhneas is campaigning to secure a nearby building that could be used as “step-down” or transitional accommodation to help women in their recovery.
Almost half of women who escape abusers enter homelessness, but Reidy says there is support for everyone, including those who are reluctant to leave. As well as refuge, Aoibhneas offers outreach services and a helpline, and Reidy says that, ideally, women and children would not be uprooted from their home and community and into refuge.
“We are here for early intervention and to support women so that, if possible, they’re not forced out.” Nationwide, there is lack of refuge spaces, with Aoibhneas forced to turn away 365 families last year, although they make every effort to find alternative accommodation for them.
After refuge, traumatised children may be waiting over a year to see a therapist, by which stage they may have blocked out the trauma or have suffered deep mental scars, and this can cause problems for the whole family.
There is hope. Today, Maria is away from her ex although she shares custody of the children with him. “We just say hi and bye. I’ll never trust him but I’m rebuilding my life and hope to get back to work soon.”
Lena took part in the Freedom programme, which helps women to recognise the signs of a dominator, although she still struggles with the guilt of what her daughter has seen. “She has come so far and she is so supportive of the other women,” says her key worker, Ciara. “There’s a lot of aftercare to help the women through the isolation that abuse can cause.”
“People tell me that I’m strong, but sometimes all I want to do is cry,” says Lena. “Still, I’m excited about our home. I love cooking and I love numbers, so I’m focused on my goal of opening my cafe and doing my own accounts. I feel safe again.”
Names and some details have been changed to protect identities
- The Aoibhneas helpline is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year: 01-867 0701/ firstname.lastname@example.org
- To support the Aoibhneas Christmas appeal, log on to Aoibhneas.ie
- Further information: WomensAid.ie and SafeIreland.ie