IT’S ten years since Rita (not her real name) first ran for help. At the time, she was a mental, physical and emotional wreck. She had been married for four years. Along with her two small daughters, aged five and three, Rita had already fled the family home more often than she could count.
She couldn’t even hazard a guess as to how many times she had hurriedly packed her belongings, sat in a bus shelter in Ballina, pushed a laden buggy through the streets of Castlebar, returned home, cried, rang the Gardaí, cried some more, sobbed, screamed silently to herself.
When Rita finally got the courage to look for a Barring Order, she was told it could take up to three months. “Three months. I’ll be dead by then,” she thought.
Within a couple of weeks, however, she had crossed a rubicon that would change her life. Once again, she had fled, with the two girls, and, once again, with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
“I walked into a small prefab in Castlebar in 1996 and a support worker hugged me and said: ‘everything will be alright. Remember, none of this is your fault’,” she recalls. “At last. My head got peace.”
The Mayo Women’s Support Services (MWSS) had been established two years earlier at the behest of the St Vincent de Paul, along with the Western Health Board and Claremorris Social Services. Over the years, the initiative has become a model for other similar services throughout the country.
Its radical and innovative emphasis on providing outreach services has meant that around 80 per cent of its work has been effected in the disparate communities - from Ballyhaunis to Belmullet, Achill to Louisburgh - throughout the county.
Rita says that MWSS helped restore her confidence, her self-belief. “It has provided a continual lifeline for me. I may have left the four walls of my marriage over ten years ago, but they can still feel as if they are caving in on me.”
Rita’s ex-husband has breached the conditions of their separation on dozens of occasions.
“I remember one particular time, he came to the family home on the same day he got out of jail and harassed me. He breached one Barring Order 31 times in 28 days,”confides Rita.
While this has landed him in court, it also meant she had to face him again. Coming face to face with a violent partner in the family courts can often be further compounded by being subjected to an unsympathetic grilling by a be-wigged judge. This can prove very intimidating for women whose morale has been shattered, whose self-esteem is already fragile.
Domestic violence is not only about black eyes, multi-coloured bruises and fractured bones. Such scars are often mere superficial wounds that cover a more insidious form of sustained torture.
“I would much rather have had a busted rib or a broken jaw than the verbal abuse. That sick need to control can be so subtle,” says Rita.
By any standards, Rita’s case is extreme. Due to his mental illness, her ex-husband has no access to their children. In the meantime, she has gained the expertise of a Family Law lawyer.
“Six months ago, I thought I’d have to leave the country to escape him. The Hague Convention allows such an action if there is no order for access,” she says stressing, however, that ‘there is light at the end of the tunnel for every victim’.
Rita regularly partakes in sessions with other women in the MWSS’s Soul Room, where, by all accounts, she has been inspirational for women who are at the beginning of their pilgrimage to peace.
“In the beginning that light may be just a dot, but it gets bigger as you build up your trust again. There are lots of genuinely nice men out there, and everyone can find - and deserves - a level of normality,” says Rita.
And she knows. She married one recently, and they have a three-year-old son.
For further information on Mayo Women’s Support Services contact 094 9025409/27519 or email: email@example.com.