Over 20,000 disclosures of domestic violence and child abuse were made to Women's Aid services last year, a new report has revealed.
Women's Aid is a national organisation that has been working since the 1970s to help women affected by domestic violence and their children. It has published its 2018 Impact Report, which provides details about the contacts made with its confidential services.
According to the report, last year, 19,089 contacts were made with the organisation's direct services, including its 24-hour national helpline. During these contacts, 16,994 disclosures of domestic violence against women were noted.
An additional 3,728 disclosures of child abuse were also made, bringing the total number of disclosures to 20,722.
"Women told our confidential services that they had been isolated from family and friends, called derogatory names, had their lives and their safety threatened. Women disclosed that they were hit, beaten with weapons, stabbed and cut with knives and strangled.
"For some women they were beaten and strangled while they were pregnant. We heard from women that their partners had raped them, coerced them into sex, had prevented access to family planning and some had explicit videos and images made and shared online without their consent," explained Women's Aid director, Margaret Martin.
She noted that because of financial abuse, many women were being forced to choose between staying in an abusive relationship or facing poverty.
"Financial abuse disclosed in 2018 included partners running up debts in women's names, women being denied access to the family finances and women's salaries or social welfare being controlled," Ms Martin said.
The report revealed that in 2018, the organisation's national helpline answered 15,835 calls, which is an average of 44 per day. Over 1,300 women also used its Dublin-based one-to-one support services.
"During these contacts women revealed the horrific abuse by their boyfriends, partners and husbands and the impact on their emotional and physical wellbeing.
"Women were left with broken bones and teeth, bruising, head injuries and internal injuries as a result of rape. Some women experienced miscarriage because of an assault, while others were experiencing post-traumatic stress, anxiety, depression and exhaustion," Ms Martin explained.
The 2018 report highlighted the strong links between child abuse and domestic violence and the organisation is calling for more recognition of the many risks to children, particularly during access arrangements with perpetrators of domestic violence. Research shows that the more severe the domestic violence is against the mother, the higher the risk of abuse against children in the home.
"In 2018, women told us on 3,728 occasions that their children were being hit, slapped, shouted at and called names, and in some cases, sexually abused. Children have been told they will be killed alongside their mothers. At times, the perpetrator of the abuse has deliberately targeted the children as a way to hurt both them and their mother," Ms Martin said.
The report revealed that some children were witness to some of the most appalling abuse and violence against their mothers, including them being physically assaulted and raped. Where children did not directly see the abuse, they may have overheard it or seen the aftermath, such as broken bones and damaged belongings.
However, ending a relation does not always end the abuse, as 27% of women who contacted Women's Aid in 2018 were experiencing abuse from an ex-husband or spouse, often during access arrangements.
Women's Aid pointed out that custody and access arrangements in family law proceedings often disregard the impact of domestic violence on children. As a result, both the children and their mother remain at risk of abuse during the hand over period.
"It is heartbreaking to listen to women who are living in a constant state of fear for their children and themselves. As much as they can, women work hard to protect their children and to keep their children's lives as safe, stable and normal as possible despite the domestic violence, but this fear is heightened when women have to facilitate access to the children for the man who has been perpetrating domestic violence.
"A father's right to access should not outweigh a child's right to safety. Child protection and safety should be prioritised in all custody and access proceedings. To do anything less is to fail women and children," Ms Martin said.
Women's Aid recommends that there be no contact with abusive fathers until contact is safe. It heard over 483 disclosures of women being abused and 255 disclosures of children being abused during access visits in 2018.
"We currently have a system where there is a presumption of contact for fathers. In our one-to-one services, we support women who face situations where Barring Orders are granted to protect a woman from her abusive partner, but there is often no assessment looking at the safety and wellbeing of the children.
"While the perpetrator is barred from the house, he often still has unsupervised access to the children and uses that access to continue abusing them directly and/or through having the children witness the abuse of their mother," Ms Martin explained.
She insisted that this needs to change as a matter of urgency.
"Women are very upset to find that even in cases where there is physical violence against her and possibly the children in the past, that access is granted. We have also found that younger children who communicate their fear of going on access are not listened to by the courts," Ms Martin said.
Women's Aid wants the risk posed by a perpetrator of domestic violence to the children of the family, and the impact of such abuse on them, to be assessed. It said that immediate interim measures should be taken to protect the children, including the rebuttal presumption of no contact until safe contact can be guaranteed.
The Women's Aid national helpline is open 24 hours a day on 1800 341 900. For more information on Women's Aid, click here
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