Women who have to leave their home and come to a refuge… it must be the bravest step ever.
When a woman first comes here it’s important how you greet her. Most of all she needs a cup of tea. And she needs someone to listen to her and say: “ you’re safe now, you’re alright…. you’re welcome here… we’ll show you your bed. Don’t worry about anything.. we’ll get you something to eat” You have to see to her needs first.
Women’s Aid is a unique organisation because we operate an open-door policy. Women can come here – and do come here – in the middle of the night or weekend. It wouldn’t be unusual to open the door and a woman and 5 kids standing there. We would always take them in. We would never refuse them.
This is the largest refuge in the whole of Ireland. We have been on this site since 1979 when we owned a large double-fronted house. In 1986 we acquired the house next door, a single-fronted house, which we converted and updated. In 2006 we decided that we really needed to upgrade the whole building so we demolished the two houses and built this purpose-built house.
We talked to all the women and asked them what they needed… what they wanted. The biggest thing was that they all wanted their own bathroom – but they still wanted the communal living. They wanted communal kitchens and communal living rooms. So that’s what we did. We now have 20 bedrooms in this house – all ensuite. All wheelchair accessible. And we have a lift.
We have 8 single rooms, which are for women on their own or women and a baby – we put a cot in there. Our biggest rooms have 6 beds – our family rooms. And, we have rooms with two beds, four beds, six beds.
There are 6 kitchens which the women share – all open plan. We have a play room and three quiet rooms and two offices. So, it’s quite a big building. There are also laundry facilities, a sun room and a playground out the back for the children. All the rooms have their own television so the women can go up there and sit and have their own space.
It is very different from the old house that we started off with where we relied on donations for furniture, donations for clothes.
Women tend to come to refuges because they have exhausted other places. There’s a limit to how long you can stay with a family member. Women know that. Once women come here you see the change and the difference in them after a week.
The number of women who contacted our helpline last year was nearly 30,000. That is extremely high for a place like Northern Ireland. The police calls around domestic violence were up to 28,000 – the highest ever. We are still only seeing the tip of the iceberg. I often say, if domestic violence was an illness, here in NI it would be an epidemic.
Women still come in crisis. They come to us with absolutely nothing – just what they stand up in.
The home is what keeps people in domestic violence. It’s why people don’t leave it. Mothers don’t want to upset their children…their school.. they have friends and neighbours… they have pets. In rural areas it might be that the home is the business, it could be a farm, it could be the children’s inheritance so all different reasons why women don’t leave.
Women miss their pets. Pets at times, could keep someone in their home. We have a couple who have become foster parents for our pets. Obviously we would take a woman if she needs to be assisted by a dog. But I think the kids miss the pets. I think children – the older children – miss their mates, that sort of thing.
We use the police to go back into women’s houses to get their belongings. It fascinates me what people bring out. They may take their wedding albums or photographs but forget to take the papers that they need. One woman brought out her wedding dress. Afterwards she said: “I don’t know why I took it…”.
You have to remember when the majority of women come here they are still going through the trauma. I see women floundering at times. It takes them weeks to establish themselves – but that’s trauma.
The luxury of coming into a refuge is that you are not dependent on anyone and you can stay here for as long as you like. Some women use us just for that respite. They might want to go to court and get a protection order, a molestation order. That can take three days so they use us while that is happening. Other women in an emergency situation. (ie. when the police bring them here) use us to work something out and return to their partner – hopefully feeling stronger because they know they have somewhere to go. Some women choose to give up their home or leave their home to their partner and so have to go through the whole process of getting rehoused. That would depend on how long they are here for – which can be up to two years. That is a long time – especially with children.
Children bed into this as their home. And, while we try our best for women to feel this is their home, it is very hard to parent in a goldfish bowl, when everyone is watching you.
We do a lot of one-to-one with children, looking at the effects domestic violence has had on them. Quite often women don’t realise children have been through something as well, because they are thinking they are protecting their children. But children actually are very aware of the situation, and everything that has happened.
We have an emergency intake room, so we always have that one room free for emergencies that night. The next day we will look for alternative accommodation which might be one of our other refuges. Or, it might be that she needs to get out of the area and we may use Bangor or Newry or Fermanagh. We also get women over the border to the south of Ireland and England, Scotland and Wales. We feed our bed-spaces in every morning to a national helpline – it’s like a bed-bank – and they know where there is accommodation. Yesterday I had a phonecall from a Women’s Aid group in England on behalf of a women who needs to get out of that area. She came from here 30 years ago and now needs to be safe. She’ll come here sometime next week. It’s a massive network.
When a women first comes here we ask her: will he come here? If he does come what’s he capable of? And we listen to the woman. We believe that every woman knows her own partner. Most will say don’t worry he won’t come because he won’t go public. Others say: if he finds me he will kill me. Then we pump up the safety aspect.
Safety means everything to them. Unfortunately… I have lost count of women who have been murdered by their partners over the years. Domestic violence is a life and death situation. You would be amazed at how many women are a hair’s breadth away from death – especially those women who have experienced strangulation and choking until they passed out. We hear about those who have been murdered but we hear about those who have been near death situations. The other high statistics would be for women with a history has been domestic violence who take their own lives.
I have worked for Women’s Aid for 37 years. In the ‘old days’, nearly every day, there was a man at the door looking for his wife. But things have changed. The reason? Mobile phones.
People talk to each other now. They text their partners and say I’m safe. “I will meet you here, I will call you here…” It’s very different. Before, men were completely in the dark. They may have got in a taxi and went round all the hostels. At times we would have had men with an axe coming to the door. It just doesn’t happen now. Social media can be a good thing. It can also be used as a weapon. We have had women who come in here and their partners are putting lies or intimate things up on social media. So, it is used as another form of abuse.
The building was supposed to go up in a year. It took nearly 2 years. But we worked with the architect and he was wonderful, a really good architect. Unfortunately, at times, the contractor wasn’t. I remember coming into the kitchens one day and they had put up dividing walls between the 6 kitchens – which I made them take down.
The light was really important. We get it from everywhere. We have skylights upstairs that put out a lot of light. So yes, it definitely worked well.
We thought the underfloor heating was a wonderful idea at the time. Since then we think it’s a curse – because you cannot control it. If you turn it off – because the house is so, so warm – and then turn it on again, it takes three days to three weeks to regulate. There are thermostats in every room. Women change the thermostats and the rooms are freezing.
I think we have 26 toilets – and there are always plumbing issues. There’s a massive maintenance with a building like this. Two years ago we installed solar panels on the roof and that has made a difference to our bills. Which is pretty good.
To be honest with you I know magnolia doesn’t suit everyone but that’s what we have kept throughout. Neutral colours. Different tones of cream in the bedrooms: raspberry, green and a sort of brown. The architect looked at different tones of cream to match in with them.
We tend to keep it the same because it has worked. We changed the carpet on 2 occasions. My goodness…. picking colours …. People wanted blue, people wanted green … So we went out and looked and eventually settled on red because it is a warm colour and it really has lifted the place. It gives a richness through the house and that’s worked for us.
When we were putting together ideas for this house there were meetings with the architect about colour. It was an absolute nightmare. People all had different views and so keeping it neutral was just so easy. Sometimes we introduce colour into the bedrooms in the form of cushions. We tried with our beds, our quilt covers. But you would go into a room and there was one duvet of each colour in the room and it just didn’t work. So, we went back to cream and white. They are very expensive because they have to be flame retardant.
We supply all the bedding. Some women take an awful lot of pride in their rooms. They keep it beautiful. But there may also be women living with 4 children in one room. You can’t complain about the room being untidy.
If anyone has ever been to other hostels, when they come in here they go: “Oh this is really nice”. And we offer women privacy. They can go to their bedroom and watch television and they can sit there and do whatever they want. They don’t have to be in the communal living area.
We have weekly house meetings that everyone comes to and where they are allocated a job. But we also bring in cleaners twice a week to look at the communal areas. They hoover or do floors and bathrooms and stuff like that. There’s also a laundry room to keep tidy. Someone oversees the bins. We do a bit of recycling. There’s all sorts of jobs. The theory behind it is: that this is your home.
We try to keep as homely as possible I think that’s a way for women to feel responsibility for the house, then when another woman comes in, they can help her. If women feel this is their home then they take a pride in it. If they don’t feel it’s their home, then they won’t.
Some women might not have skills such as cleaning and cooking – so you really need to work on that, and parenting. Today we have Chest Heart and Stroke upstairs in the quiet room. All the mums are going to that. They are doing some sort of pampering this morning but they are also doing blood pressure and cholesterol. They are coming in next week to do ‘healthy living’. So, we encourage cooking and healthy diet and that kind of thing.
We have “Journey to Freedom” groups where we look at domestic violence and the effect that has had on the woman and her children. It is only part of the overall package. There are also programmes for children – ” Helping Hands” which is around protective behaviours – who to trust, who to talk to. We do that in a group session and also on a one-to-one. If someone is homeless we are not the right place. It’s all around the package. This is what makes us different from a homeless hostel.
We also hold a contract for women who have been trafficked into NI. So again we see that as another form of violence against women. There are different types of forced labour… women brought over here to work on farms or factories. Women who have been brought over here in domestic servitude.
Women are here from all walks of life and all social and financial backgrounds. There is the myth that everyone who is on benefits comes from a working class area. It’s just not the case. We have professional women here and their husbands are professional men.
We have a three-day rule. When you come in you take three days to see if it suits you and we take three days to see if you are suited to this house. We work in a very self-help way and we promote self-help within the house. Some women, for instance, cannot cook for themselves or would be reliant on others. The other women are carrying their own burdens – they don’t need that as well.
You have women in communal living who argue over children. And you hear women screaming sometimes because someone has taken her biscuits. But that’s not about her biscuits. That is about whatever is going on with her. When she comes in she has been allocated a key worker. The key worker will put together a support package for her and also look towards her direct needs. She will have that key worker for her entire stay.
We have a laundry room and women use it whenever they want. There are two big washing machines and two big dryers. And it works. We do ask women not to do it after 12 o’ clock at night, because the noise of the pipes goes through the house.
There are two upright freezers and a chest freezer out in the den. But we have to remind people that they are living in temporary accommodation so it’s not as if you are in the house and go to Iceland and fill your freezer for a month. You can’t do that here – because other people need the space.
I have learned never to assume that you know what women want. Have a focus group and ask them. You may not like what you hear but that’s what the work is. We ask everyone to do an exit questionnaire and feedback. And what they value obviously, is the support.
A big part of domestic violence is that you are isolated. Women said that when they went into refuge they enjoyed the communal living. Going into independent living would have isolated them even further. That’s the main thing that we realise works here: communal living. And, having the choice of your own space, your own bathroom, to be on your own if you want. But if you want to integrate with the other women you can.
We have 19 women in here at the moment. We are generally full because the need is there. At the weekends there would be more women around. And sometimes two or three women would get together and make their Sunday dinner. They pool whatever they have. At Christmas a couple of women cook for the whole house and we provide all the food.
Sometimes they come in and say: “Can we get new cushions, or new mats for this..” Of course. That’s what we do. Or, we go to IKEA with the women on the bus and they pick out what cutlery they want. The involvement of women is essential.
If you encourage women to get on with their lives then every day is different for them. We have 24 hour staff so have a worker coming in at 7am to take over from her and she would be around to help women to maybe order taxis to take kids to school. Or, we use our minibus to take kids to school.
Women are going out to work …and quite a lot of women drive so their cars are outside in the street. Or, they are running for buses and trying to get kids out to school. Lost ties, lost homework.. all the same things that you would encounter in your own home. Then it comes to 10 o’ clock and things are very quiet. That’s the time for the workers to get on with the paperwork. Women who are in the house during the day may have their one-to-one’s with their key worker. No two days are the same….. and we can have really harrowing days.
We have girls who come back. “Do you remember me? I was here with my mum years ago.” They are not prepared to accept any sort of domestic violence. “I’m not going to end up like my mum”. As soon as they see there’s any sort of problem they are out of there. So, you hope that the work that you’ve done has paid off.
It is very rewarding place to work. You see the other side of it. Sometimes you see women coming in here, we describe them as a rabbit in the headlights, and see them going out as very confident young women going into independent living.
See also: Insights: Women’s Aid: Family, Home and Refuge
Interview with Noelle Collins
Women’s Aid, Belfast and Lisburn