Stormont cuts could reduce refuge spaces for the victims of domestic violence
Vital support services for hundreds of women and children wanting to escape a violent home are under threat due to immense financial pressures.
The availability of emergency refuge accommodation that provides safety for a woman and her children when they flee from a violent and abusive partner is particularly vulnerable to restrictive budget cuts, it has been warned.
Almost 900 women and 546 children were provided with refuge by the charity Women's Aid throughout 2012/13.
In a number of extreme cases some women had to return to the abusive household because occupancy levels at the refuges were full.
Women's Aid has 12 refuges across Northern Ireland.
The charity also provides vital community support for domestic abuse victims hoping to rebuild their lives.
Last year community support was provided to 3,659 women and 4,469 children.
However, Women's Aid is concerned that vital services may have to be axed due to severe Government cuts.
"It is a rather frightening place to be at the minute. If departments are facing cuts then we in the voluntary sector are a soft target. It is a very vulnerable time," warned Annie Campbell, director of Women's Aid Northern Ireland.
"We have good champions but we are very worried about the axe falling.
"It will mean the loss of posts and the loss of services."
Ms Campbell said Women's Aid was already struggling with high occupancy rates at its refuges and that financial pressures meant there was little hope that additional spaces would be made available. "It is horrendous for the woman to be told there is no space for her.
"If that happens to a woman the chances are she will never reach out for help again. That is why we are trying so hard to accommodate a woman somewhere, but it is proving difficult," she said.
"At the minute the likelihood of more spaces would be low. We are already concerned about the sustainability of services. We provide a very specialised service.
"It is not about providing someone a bed or going and helping them sort out their benefits, it is helping them through a long, painful journey from years of abuse."
Sonya McMullan, Women's Aid helpline manager, warned that other housing providers did not have the same level of expertise to address the complex needs of domestic abuse victims.
"Although other organisations are very helpful, it is not the same thing for a woman or a woman and her children to go into a general hostel. They don't have the expertise. Our refuges are for women only, which is very important for women coming from abusive relationships. A lot of them can't deal with being in a mixed hostel," she said.
Justice Minister David Ford admitted that Stormont budget cuts could affect the level of funding available for Women's Aid.
"Finance comes from different departments for Women's Aid, including from the Justice Department. The reality is, at the present time, I don't think at this stage we are in any position to guarantee that there will not be some effect," said Mr Ford.
He added: "There is some effect right across the justice system.
"There is no doubt we are seeking to prioritise protection of vulnerable people in whatever area it is. The justice system has to look at a lot more than just domestic violence."
Case1: 'If he finds me, I'm dead'
A frightened woman recently rang the helpline desperately seeking help for her and her children.
The woman was looking for somewhere safe to go for herself and her children after her partner assaulted her in the family home. Her partner escaped from the police after the vicious attack. The police were holding the woman in a safe place and did not want her to return to her home as they believed her life was under threat while her partner was still at large.
Her partner has previous convictions for assault and attempted murder and is extremely dangerous. The police also feared for her and the children if she went to any family members' home in case he should turn up there.
"I am so frightened for myself and the children, if he finds me, I'm dead," she said.
Case 2: 'I was raped by my date'
A gay male caller rang the helpline looking for support after he was attacked by a man he had gone on a date with.
He said he had been set up on a blind date by a friend and then brought the man back to his house after dinner for a drink. The man raped him.
The caller had not left the house since the incident, which was over a week ago.
He had called in sick to work and also had no contact with friends and family. He said he felt ashamed and dirty and was still in shock over what had happened.
He said he does not feel safe in his own home and has the lights on 24 hours a day.
"I can't leave the house or go out, everyone will know, I feel really scared and I feel like I look different, like I have a sign on my head. How did this happen to me? It has really changed everything," he said.
Case 3: 'My ex took our son'
A woman contacted the helpline when her ex-husband failed to return their six-year-old child from a contact visit. It is not the first time this has happened, but this time he said he would not bring her son back at all.
The woman rang the police and they accompanied her to the house.
The boy said he was fine and wanted to stay with his daddy so the police are not pursuing it, even though the woman has a court order in relation to contact arrangements.
She is very frightened he will take their son out of the country as he has threatened to do on many occasions.
"I just want my son back. I need to know he is safe and well.
"This happens all the time and I am terrified that he will take my son far away where I'll never be able to find him.
"I can't understand why this is allowed to happen," she said.
Case 4: 'I was prisoner at home'
One woman who rang the helpline for support had recently escaped an abusive marriage and was trying to rebuild her life after the severe trauma she had experienced over a 30-year period.
The woman was very anxious when she spoke about the abuse. She was housed in a refuge until she was able to get a new home for herself. The woman was provided with emotional support and support from a local Women's Aid group. She said that for 30 years she had been a prisoner in her own home.
"I couldn't leave the house, I was a prisoner in my own home, locked in for several days at a time, was unable to cook without my food being thrown at me, or to wash without my head being held under water.
"I couldn't go to the bathroom during the night; he would kick the door in and say I was taking too long.
"If I fought back, he would rape me sometimes over and over again," she said.
Case 5: 'I'm still in awful pain'
A woman from Sudan who is living in Northern Ireland contacted the helpline for assistance after suffering years of abuse at the hands of her husband.
The woman was a victim of genital mutilation at the age of six and was also sexually abused as a child.
Her husband continued this abuse over many years.
"My husband would sew me up after I had my babies as he believed it kept me chaste and clean. But this has led to lots of pain and infections and since I came to Ireland I have had two operations to correct the damage but I am still in awful pain," she explained.
The woman was provided with information about the legal position in Northern Ireland on domestic violence and female genital mutilation as well as information on health services and support organisations.
Case 6: ‘I’m scared stiff of him’
A scared 17-year-old girl contacted the helpline after she broke up with her boyfriend because of his controlling behaviour.
Since then her boyfriend has threatened her that he would post images of her online if she did not come back to him. She is frightened that he might really hurt her. He has also threatened to take his own life if she doesn’t take him back. “I don’t know what to do, this is a really big year in school and I can’t concentrate, I’m crying all the time and am taking lots of time off, I can’t tell anyone except my auntie, she is a good support and gave me your number. I’m scared stiff of him and of having those images posted,” she said.
Case 7: 'I'm in dread of her'
A man in his late 60s has contacted the helpline on a number of occassions. He said he has been experiencing domestic violence from his wife for many years. He said it takes the form of emotional abuse and sometimes physical.
"He is also his wife's carer since she became ill many years ago. He said his wife's illness changed their lives completely and she became angry and aggressive towards him. This goes on every day of his life.
"I feel alone and have no one to talk to, the kids have long left and who would believe me, a 'big man' like me.
"I really didn't think my retirement would end up being a life of dread and fear, we had such great plans," he said.
Case 8: 'I feel so anxious'
A woman who was sexually abused and raped when she was 12 years old by an older man in a position of trust within the family and community contacted the helpline for its support.
Her health has suffered because of the abuse and she has experienced high levels of anxiety, panic and eating disorders. She rarely leaves the house and life is very difficult for her, just coping day to day.
"My panic attacks are increasing and I feel anxious all the time, it is so difficult that I just have to take one day at a time and wait to see how I will be on that day.
"Everything is so difficult to do, just getting up and getting dressed is a struggle some days," she said.
Case 9: 'I can call anytime'
A woman who is suffering from MS and is wheelchair-bound said she has experienced domestic violence for most of her married life. Her husband is her carer, but also her abuser.
Her children are grown-up and have left the family home and she now feels more isolated than ever. Her children, family and friends have long drifted away because her husband was so unwelcoming to them.
She went to her GP and he gave her the helpline card and encouraged her to call.
"It is so good to finally be able to talk to someone who believes me and understands what I am going through; I don't feel so alone and because the helpline is open 24 hours a day I can call anytime when he is out at work, which is great," she said.
Case 10: 'I just feel so alone'
A woman contacted the helpline after her children witnessed her husband attack her. She had believed that she could cope with the abuse until her children became aware of it and it made her question her relationship and how it was affecting the children.
The woman described a long history of violent incidents and threatening texts. She said she told her parents but they are religious and underestimated everything as "all couples have their ups and downs". The woman and her husband are active members of a church where her husband is well thought of. She doesn't feel she would be taken seriously or supported.
"I don't know where to go next and who will believe me, no one, they all think he's wonderful and I am afraid of losing the children. I feel so alone," she said.
All accounts taken from the Women's Aid helpline