By Lynsey Dreaper
As each day sees more and more horrifying stories appear in the media, domestic violence is becoming increasingly prevalent in our society.
Whereas it was once an issue that was dealt with behind closed doors, and was considered to be a private matter between a couple, it is now a regular news feature and is fast becoming a concern that needs rapid and significant intervention.
A shocking one in five women in Ireland who have been in a relationship have been abused by a current or former partner.
In 2011, there were 12,612 incidents of domestic violence disclosed to the Women's Aid national freephone helpline including 8,399 incidents of emotional abuse, 2,337 incidents of physical abuse and 1,399 incidents of financial abuse.
In the same year, 477 incidents of sexual abuse were disclosed to the helpline support workers, including 184 rapes. These are horrifying statistics and unfortunately only reflect the number of reported incidents, many more go unreported.
Meath Women's Refuge in Navan has been in operation for 25 years and manager Deirdre Murphy spoke with Forum to explain how domestic abuse manifests itself and how to recognise the signs of an abusive relationship.
"The key to abuse of any kind is breaking down confidence, shattering the sense of self-worth. If a woman's confidence is shaken then the power is automatically handed to her partner and that's where the trouble begins. Many women have heard the horror stories and brush aside their own concerns as they seem to pale in comparison. Women will think that because they are not being beaten that their abuse fear isn't valid," she said.
There is also an element of shame, a stigma involved that prevents women from speaking out. According to Deirdre, "Confidentiality is very important, especially in the area of intimate relationships with a partner, where everyone on the outside thinks things are fine but they're not."
The main concern for women is to protect the children in the relationship and a glaring misconception is that the children don't know what's going on. "Children know everything," Deirdre says. Even a child of six months can sense tension and Deirdre and her team can recognise the signs straightaway, "They'll be hyper alert, they observe everything, they'll be listening at the top of the stairs. They can recognise the signs and know when there's going to be a row or there has just been one."
Deirdre recalls one lady who had a clever strategy for keeping herself and her children safe. "When there was a big family gathering coming up, like a communion or confirmation, she knew the cycle that was going to happen and she'd nearly instigate the row so that it would be over and they'd have the honeymoon period for the communion or confirmation, or whatever it was. This means that many children are making their confirmation, for example, and will only remember the tension, and all the while the visiting family will see a happy, united front."
Domestic abuse can come in many ways, and often begins with very subtle manipulation that can be delivered in the nicest way. Imperceptible, disguised criticism can often be the start, with comments like "I prefer your hair down" or "The other dress is nicer on you".
Without realising a woman may begin to alter her choices to please her partner which can be easily justified.
This begins then to filter through to other personal choices the woman would make making her think twice before buying something or cooking something or deciding on a DVD for example.
While impossible to define, Deirdre describes abuse as "All about power and control, not about equality or the give and take that is vital for any relationship."
The finances of a wealthy couple can be controlled by the man, leaving the woman having to ask for money and justify spending. If a couple are on social welfare the husband can claim the whole amount, deeming it "easier this way".
Deirdre's message is simple, "While your relationship with your partner is extremely important, you are an individual and you have your own needs and desires. This should never be overshadowed by the needs of your partner. If you want to meet a friend for a cup of coffee, for example, you should be able to do it without having to justify yourself to anyone."
The doors of the refuge are always open. Deirdre and her team are fighting against slashed budgets and heightened administration demands but refuse to turn anyone away from their door. They are in close contact with the refuge network in the area and beyond and will ensure that a safe haven is found for any woman, and her children, in need.
For further information contact Deirdre in confidence at the Meath Women's Refuge on (046) 9022393 or visit www.womensaidmeath.ie.