It's long past the time that they were granted the respect of having their individual voices heard, writes Suzanne Breen
On almost every one of the 533 pages in the report on Northern Ireland’s mother and baby homes, and Magdalene laundries, there’s a story that would break your heart.
Women and girls, as young as 12, who had done no wrong, treated in the most callous and inhuman fashion. Not a few dozen or a few hundred – 14,000 females were housed in these ‘institutions’ because to call them ‘homes’ is a falsehood.
On countless occasions, women and girls tried to escape the Magdalene laundries but were routinely returned by police. A desperate 14-year-old repeatedly ran away from St Mary’s in Derry in the 1970s. She was brought back by the RUC and British Army. There was no shortage of cross-community co-operation to support a misogynist system.
Branded “socially inadequate” with a “low IQ”, K – the daughter of a single mother – was sent to St Mary’s in 1950. J was admitted in 1987 after referral by a Donegal priest because she was “very backward”.
No detail is given as to how they were categorised or what psychological examination, if any, was undertaken.
In 1978, 16-year-old M was sent there by her parish priest because her father beat her when he was drunk. The men, who impregnated or hurt these females, are never held to account. They lived their lives unrestricted and unpunished.
There are scores of girls, for every letter of the alphabet, all dumped in these vile institutions, often by state welfare authorities and even the courts.
St Mary’s was viewed as “a place of correction where those prone to morally questionable or illegal behaviour might be reformed”.
Some of these women never experience adult life outside the convent walls. One enters a Magdalene laundry in 1929. She leaves in a coffin in 1980.
Our political parties are united in horror at what went on in these institutions from 1922-1990. Arlene Foster has announced that an independent investigation process will begin. The work will be done within six months, and a public inquiry may then be set up.
The Queens University and Ulster University researchers have done a remarkable job in documenting the untold stories of thousands of women, but it is not enough.
Patrick Corrigan of Amnesty International says: “It’s time for the women and girls forced into these homes, and the children born there, to have their voices properly heard.
“They have been failed in countless ways for so many years. It’s vital the inquiry gets to the truth and delivers the justice they deserve.”
He is absolutely right. For too long, these women were silenced as other people made decisions and spoke for them. It's long past the time that they were granted the respect of having their individual voices heard. Each and every one of them must be allowed to tell her own story.