Women's Aid, Woman's Refuge

Roisin McDermott has been a leading light the in the campaign against domestic violence. But after 20 years she is giving it all up for the quiet life.


“That's where I'm going!” exclaims Roisín McDermott, pointing to an architect's plan on the wall behind her. “To open a hotel in Leitrim.” It represents a sea change in the life of the woman who has lead Women's Aid for the last 15 years and put the issue of domestic violence firmly on the political agenda. For nearly 20 years, she has lived and breathed the organisation, motivated by the sadness, shock and frustration at the stories of horror she has been privy to. But in recent times, those feelings have been numbed: she is no longer as shocked or as reactive as she once might have been. She believes that she has taken Women's Aid as far as she can, and her plan now is to start a new life.
“It's probably the longest goodbye. I've been planning to leave for a long while now, but a few things which happened recently made me finally realise it was time to leave. One particular time last year, I was giving a public meeting about domestic violence and I actually noticed the tiredness in my voice. Then, afterwards, I heard a story about a woman who felt her life was at risk and that her partner was going to kill her, but when she went for help she got absolutely no support. Subsequently, he murdered her. A story like that would normally have given me energy for another six or seven months, but this time it just didn't happen. I wasn't as shocked or saddened as I should have been, and that's when I said, ‘Roisín, it's time to go.”
But a recent political announcement also had a marked influence on her decision to leave Women's Aid. Until some months ago, the organisation had been developing its rural programme, looking at the experience of rural women who suffer domestic violence and the particular isolation they endure, which is compounded by geography. It was an insight into the darker side of domestic violence that had a profound effect on her.
“We were asked by local people to call our meetings women's health seminars rather than using the words ‘domestic violence' in the title. One GP in Letterfrack who had stocked our leaflets actually had to remove them because she had been threatened by one of her client's partners. It was just so desolate. But what I found particularly scandalous was the complete lack of services for rural women who do experience violence. The nearest refuge a woman in Leitrim or Monaghan has is in Navan or Dundalk. And then came the announcement about the GAA getting £20 million. I just couldn't believe it.”
“If there was anything else killing people in this way politicians would stand up and do something, but there is still a strong belief that domestic violence is a private issue between a woman and a man. The thing I have learned most in the last 15 years is that once there is a relationship between the victim and the perpetrator of a crime people start to minimise it or dismiss it altogether.”
In her decade and a half in the chair of Women's Aid, McDermott has transformed the organisation from one with no staff and an overdraft of £25,000 to a burgeoning operation with 26 full-time employees and an annual budget of £750,000. In that time, the organisation has helped tens of thousands of women through its help-line and refuges, offering solace and shelter and in some cases saving lives. And it has fought a consistent battle against what its outgoing chairwoman describes as the “collective complacency” towards the crime that affects one in four women.
She blames successive governments for failing to face up to their responsibility to find solutions to the problem of domestic violence and to protect its victims, leaving under-resourced women's groups to deal with it single-handedly.
“My greatest frustration in leaving is that as a country we don't fully accept that domestic violence is one of the most socially pervasive problems we have coming into the 21st century. I firmly believe that if it wasn't for women's groups like ours the issue would not be on the public agenda. Continuous governments have seen it as a social issue which one or two groups can lobby for. They don't actually see that every Irish woman has a constitutional right to bodily integrity and to be safe, yet there are still groups around the country having coffee mornings and jumble sales to raise money for services which should be provided by the state.”
Apart from apathy on a political level, McDermott is critical of the role of men and their silence in regard to the subject of violence against women.
“We never hear the voices of the non-violent men. I know many men who would never be violent, and as such they don't see it as their problem. But they never know when their sister or their daughter might get involved with someone abusive. I would love to see a culture emerge where all those non-abusing men we never hear from would feel safe enough to condemn violent men in the pub or in social situations. All men need to take responsibility for male violence, and they must start by saying that other men's violence brings us all down.”
Despite her anger at the GAA's recent windfall, McDermott recognised it as an opportunity to raise the issue in a male-dominated environment. In a letter to the GAA, she suggested that billboards be put up at matches saying “Real Men Don't Abuse Women,” in the light of the fact that times of sports events mark an increase in the number of assaults against women. She has yet to receive a reply.
Although she would once have thought a solution to domestic violence could be reached in her own time, today she doesn't believe that even her daughter's generation will see it. Preventative measures, which she sees as the only means of eradicating a crime that kills 70 per cent of women murdered every year, are very few and far between.
“Resources desperately need to be put into prevention, and that means starting with children in secondary schools. Young boys and girls need to learn how to deal with anger and things like self-esteem. And girls in particular need to recognise the warning signs, like, for example, just because he wants to know where you are all the time doesn't mean he loves you.”
Women's Aid has already visited schools where this type of work was carried out to successful effect. The organisation is unable to meet all schools' demands for visits, however, because of their inability to fund such visits.
“But the messages need to keep going out,” warns McDermott. “When the problem is brought out in the open, the response has been tremendous. Our last advertising campaign increased calls by 48 per cent, as did The Family, the television series by Roddy Doyle.”
“For the last 15 years Women's Aid has been my life. I will always be committed to it, and the thing that I'm proudest of is the fact that it is completely independent of me now and will go on to much greater things. But I've reached a point now where I'm actually worried that if another person asks me ‘Why do men do it?' when I'm on the pulpit or on television, that I'll scream at them ‘Because they can.'” I think for a while I'm going to spend my time talking about knitting instead.”