The History of Women’s Aid – Foyle Experience
The headlines of ‘Community Mirror’ on the 16th October 1976 read “We’re here to stay.” This summed up the feelings of the Women’s Aid Action Group who occupied 24 Pump Street, Derry. The house had been a Salvation Army Hotel for men. However, after the relocation of the latter to Riverview House in May 1975, it had been left vacant from 5th October 1976 onward. 24 Pump Street was to be the first Women’s Aid Refuge west of the Bann.
Developments prior to the occupation are worth noting for the sake of perspective. They date back to spring 1976, when an extra-mural course on ‘Women and Society’, held in Magee University, gave rise to the Derry Socialist Women’s Group. This discussion group set itself the task of examining the position of women in Derry. After a couple of months, however, it was approached by active people in the community, looking for action that would highlight the plight of homeless women and their children. A number of homeless women were introduced to the group, their introduction resulting in ‘Operation Desperation’.
Direct action became the order of the day with the launching of ‘Operation Desperation’.
Over the previous 18 months the Clarendon Street Night Shelter Committee (representing the Churches, N.S.P.C.C., the Samaritans, St. Vincent De Paul and other groups) had been negotiating with the Western Area Health and Social Services Board to obtain funding for night shelter facilities for women in the Derry area. ‘Operation Desperation’ was an attempt to put pressure on the Board to expedite developments. 63 Clarendon Street had already been procured for use as the night shelter and a token squat of the vacant building took place. This resulted in considerable publicity and a meeting between representatives of the Night Shelter Committee and the Derry Socialist Women’s Group. The latter favoured the provision of 24-hour accommodation, but this was not seen as acceptable and/or feasible by the Clarendon Street Committee. The conclusion therefore, of ‘Operation Desperation’ was a decision that independent action would have to be taken in order to provide the required 24-hour refuge facilities for Derry.
With the coming of the Summer, considerable time and attention was given to the examination of the position of Battered Women and the possibilities of setting up a refuge in Derry. Research was aided by Rosemary Cusack who worked with the Group and who completed a project on Battered Wives for Magee University College. In this she wrote that:
“The exact extent of the problems of wife battering in Derry City would be impossible to determine from the figures available in this project. However, the tip of the iceberg could be gauged simply by adding the figures given by the voluntary and statutory agents for 1975: five voluntary workers – 21; one health visitor – 50; one social worker – 12; three police stations – 30; personal contacts – 7; this makes a total of one hundred with caution since in most cases they are observational and would tend to grossly underestimate the size of the problem. One can only conjecture what the figures would be if all the agents of the statutory and voluntary bodies produced their figures and if every case of wife battering in the city was reported.”
The Formation of Foyle Women’s Aid
Action took the form of letters being dispatched to the Housing Executive, Social Services and Estate Agents seeking vacant property for use as a refuge, and in August a squat in a bricked up house in Orchard Street. The latter, however, proved to be structurally unsound and had to be vacated. Alongside the increased Group activity, pressure was mounting with more battered women being brought to the Group’s attention. The project also attracted the support of women outside the Derry Socialist Women’s Group, but who were active in the community and who were aware of the need for a refuge. A survey was made of vacant property in the city, and it was decided to occupy 24 Pump Street. Despite an initial police warning, the squat was maintained on a 24 hour basis and contact was established with Women’s aid Groups in Belfast and Coleraine.
It was decided that the Derry group, which for the purpose of the squat has been called the Derry Women’s Action group, should adopt the aims of the National Women’s Aid Federation, and become known as Derry Women’s Aid. It was under this title that the Group opened negotiations with the Director of the Western Area health and Social Services Board. These negotiations centred around the demand for legalisation and financial support.
The need for legalisation was made pressing by the Emergency Provisions Legislation in Northern Ireland. This included squatting in public buildings as an offence and left the two women and two men who had made the initial squat open to prosecution. Indeed information came back to the Group that there had been pressure at parliamentary level to have such prosecutions brought. However, this did not materialise.
The refuge began to receive battered women and their children, and was manned on a volunteer rota basis. It gradually adopted the format of the Women’s Aid Refuge, i.e. the ‘no – men’ rule, collective decision-making and the ‘self-help’ principles. Two members of the Derry Group travelled to a National Women’s Aid Federation Conference in November and contact was made with the Women’s Aid Refuge in Dublin.
Emphasis was always placed on the need for good relations with all the Community based groups operating in the City. This was borne out by the fact that the first action after the Pump Street squat was to notify Community and Neighbourhood Groups explaining the action taken and also requesting help and support. The latter was forthcoming from a number of groups; with furniture, clothing and finance being provided. Volunteers also took care of repairing electricity and plumbing in Pump Street. Whilst support was such that any legal action taken against the squat was doomed to failure, in terms of publicity and public sympathy, this public support was to prove vital as the financing of the project was dependant on donations and frequent pub collections. The weekend Women’s Aid collection became a familiar sight in Derry’s pubs.
Over the eight month period of their operation, some 90 women and 300 children were accommodated in Pump Street, thus dispelling the assumption that there were no battered wives in Derry. Although many of them came from both Protestant and Catholic communities in the city itself, others came from as far away as Dungannon and Ballycastle. Nobody was turned away from the Refuge despite severe overcrowding at times and inadequate facilities. The latter were due to the fact that 24 Pump Street has previously been used as offices and hence lacked bathrooms, adequate kitchens, etc.
With the increasing number of women using the Refuge it was decided in mid-November 1976 to end the 24 hour rota arrangement and replace it with a less regulated attendance of volunteers. It was felt by the Support Group (from which the volunteers were drawn) that this would put into practice the principle of communal self-help on which the refuge was being run. Two aspects were involved in this approach:
- The idea of self-help as increasing the independence of the women.
- The element of community which would hopefully offer support in times of need.
While this approach was relatively successful, with house meetings once a week for everybody connected with the refuge, new needs became increasingly apparent. As women moved out; either returning home or through re-housing, the need for continuity in the refuge was highlighted, particularly in the cases of those women who were coming back to the refuge repeatedly. The pressure of specialised work needed in areas of legal questions, housing and social security also increased. As did the need for a Play Leader.
While members of the Support Group did provide a certain degree of continuity, their energies became concentrated in the fields of fundraising and maintenance of the House. Continuity was also provided by long-term residents of the refuge, but this was not considered adequate.
In January the Young Help Scheme provided a Youth Worker for the refuge. While this relieved some of the pressure of work from the volunteers, his area of activity was limited due to the lack of funding. The Youth Worker found much of his time being taken up by answering the telephone, door, etc. Hence the Support Group decided that it was again necessary to organise a rota of volunteers on a rather stricter basis. This was to answer the priority of having somebody in constant attendance to ensure that all calls of distress were noted and adequately dealt with. Due to the size of the house and the demands of their families, it seemed unfair that this work should be left to the residents, although they were willing to help out. Equally it was felt that more of an effort should be put into allowing the Youth Worker to fulfil his original role.
Out of this trial period came the decision that a full-time refuge worker was needed to work alongside the volunteers and residents; with the overall responsibility for the refuge remaining with Derry Women’s Aid. The House meetings, one night per week, would include residents, volunteers and worker and would co-ordinate activities.
Negotiations with the Western Area Board proceeded space, resulting in legalisation on the basis of 1p per year rent for the building and a £15,000 grant to renovate and restructure the refuge. Payment of a full-time worker was also agreed. In relation to the running costs of the refuge parallel negotiations were opened with supplementary benefits, which concluded with the granting of a £7 per week rent allowance to each woman in the refuge and £1 for each child. Despite these arrangements, adequate finance was still to be dependant on collections and donations.
In the light of experience it was decided to set up facilities for the children of the refuge and in this endeavour approaches were made to Save the Children Fund. A combination of the latter, the Western health and Social Services Board and the Clarendon Street Night Shelter (which had since opened) resulted in a Play Group for the 3-5 year olds and a Play Centre for the 5-10 year olds. A part-time play leader for the older children was also appointed in co-operation with the Western Education and Library Board. The area of child care invariably proved to be a particularly difficult one for Women’s Aid, with the N.S.P.C.C. in Essex having set up an Action Research Project to examine the affect of violent family back grounds on children. Certainly the Derry experience illustrated the damage done to adolescent boys, who very often showed early sings of violent behaviour themselves; with pent-up feelings and easily roused tempers. In many cases, truancy was to prove a troublesome, if understandable problem, as was the need for personal assertion which could lead to situations of conflict in a communal living situation.
Life in the refuge was to prove difficult for more than adolescent children as women accustomed to nuclear family situations were exposed to having to share limited kitchen and bathroom facilities with other families. Without constant attention, the combination of tension, depression and uncertainty could lead to flare-ups over apparently petty irritations. As Cathy Harkin, the full-time refuge worker was to point out;
“…. for any woman who chooses voluntarily to leave her home and come into a Centre, well, the situation at home has to be bad.”
An attempt to understand refuge life can be gained from reading the Day Book that has been kept since the initial squat.
The Implications for Women’s Aid in Foyle
In January 1978, the Derry refuge re-opened after being closed for repair. It opened, however, with the awareness of the exact extent of wife battering in both Derry and Northern Ireland. In order to extend this knowledge, it decided on a programme of education, both in practical terms of one-to-one information provision and in more general terms of addressing meetings, showing relevant films and setting up Support Groups.
The practical help resulted in the opening of a Women’s Advice Centre in 24 Pump Street. This dealt with problems of social security, family planning, leaving, etc. as well as legal issues and direct battering. Unlike the refuge, where residents tend to be working class in composition, the Advice Centre has catered for women drawn from every social category.
Support Groups in areas without a Women’s Aid refuge are also encouraged to set up Advice Centres, such a Support Group being recently established in Strabane.
The advice work of Women’s Aid in Foyle has involved the Group in Housing Action and encouragement of Claimants’ Action. Many of the Women’s Aid volunteers had on-going experience in these fields in any case, so the emphasis on the female perspective was not to prove difficult for them. A supervisory role was also adopted by Women’s Aid to the work of Doctors, Lawyers and Police in relation to their attitudes and handling of women’s cases.
In response to the needs of women who were separated, re-housed and had left the refuge, it was decided that work should be invested in the setting up of single parent family groups to which women could be referred for support on leaving the refuge it was found that after the initial decision to leave the husband, that departing from the refuge could be extremely traumatic for both women and children. This was despite the fact that every effort was made to prevent women from becoming dependent on Women’s Aid. Independent initiatives in Creggan had set up a single parent family group in the area in 1977, since that time Women’s Aid co-operated with the Creggan Group and sought to repeat the exercise in other areas of Derry. One of the most striking facts to emerge was the sheer numbers of one parent families in the city.
In recognition of the fifth aim of the National Women’s Aid Federation; “To educate and inform the public, the media, the police, the courts, social services and other authorities with respect to the battering of women, mindful of the fact that this is a result of the general position of women in our society.”
Foyle Women’s Aid has never been reticent in adopting cases which highlight the general position of women in Derry society. In pursuit of this, it made public note of International Women’s Day 1977 with slogans and leaflets, while it has resorted to Street Theatre and posters at other times, sometimes under its own name and on other occasions adopting relevant titles. Issues have been taken up that were often first brought to attention through the Refuge or the Advice Centre. These include incest and rape, both of which are receiving increased notice as a result of being increasingly reported.
The implications of Women’s Aid for Derry then, would seem to be far greater than the mere provision of temporary accommodation for battered women and their children, vital in itself though that is. Women’s Aid is a direct challenge to the attitudes towards women held in a male-dominated society. How have the Derry men reacted? Again citing an interview with the refuge worker; a lot of men see the refuge as a threat according to Cathy. Because of that they ridicule it and make jokes. When she’s done e.g. pub collections to help towards the expense she’s had to get herself into the ‘right mental state,’ blocking everything else out and concentrating on the collection.
“My god, the old clichés and jokes fairly come out then, things like a good slap around the ear never killed anyone! My answer to that is ‘No Human Being deserves to be beaten’.”
Predictably enough, the aspect of Women’s Aid that has perhaps stirred up the greatest male antagonism was the ‘No Men’ rule in the refuge itself. This is one of the few rules that Women’s aid stands firm on.
In passing, however, it might be noted that Foyle Women’s aid has been attacked for more than permission. The range of critics, have reached from Unionist Councillors to Left Wing groupings. One of the latter commenting on the involvement of the Derry Socialist Women’s Group in Women’s Aid wrote:
“Unfortunately, through being dominated by a number of politically unstable elements, Liberals and feminists, the group’s inherence and adherence to political principles began to crumble under the pressure of its intervention. The group while maintaining a strident permission in words capitulated totally to the worst of charity work, in effect divorcing the needs of women from the whole political economic framework of capitalism.”
Against such assertions, Women’s Aid continued to assert its consciousness, raising role, especially among women, where the latter could establish that they have experiences in common, and that individuals were not ‘deviant cases’ to be dealt with by a series of ‘professionals;’ social workers, doctors, priests/ministers, lawyers, psychiatrists, etc.
It is this consciousness; raising role, which Women’s Aid values so highly, that is perhaps the most gradual development that must be faced. In combination, however, with attacks on structured inequalities and regressive attitudes the Women’s Aid Movement have promised to have an even greater impact on Derry society.
It is by reflecting on the position of women in that society, attempting to make that reflection general knowledge and taking action where it is demanded, that Women’s Aid were the extreme individual cases with which it comes in contact to combat the more convert attitudes and expectations that lay the ground for violence to women.
The records from the Women’s Aid Refuge itself show that it has broken down sectarian barriers; that it has catered for women of all age groups and social standing and that it has come into close contact with women who have been oppressed by men (women as such rather than any particular category). On the other hand, the Group has managed a successful squat irrespective of Emergency Provisions Legislation, has highlighted legal and social injustices through such campaigns as the Free Noreen Winchester Petition and the single parent family groups; and has been active in supporting housing agitations and other community based issues. This is the practical aspect of the structural feminist approach of Women’s Aid, challenging the class-rooted, male-dominated structures of existing society, by a method that emphasizes mass action rather than a ‘purist elitism’. Repeating the assertion by the N.W.A.F office collective:
“We believe that real revolutionary change must come from a broad base of anger at society and a willingness to change.”
“I thought I saw two persons coming down the road but it was only a man and his wife.”
Although battered women have been noted for centuries, nothing had been done to alleviate their plight. Indeed in many cases that plight was made worse by the individualistic interpretations of the reasons for battering provided by the ‘experts’. The result was often a sense of shame and failure, augmented by the attitudes of society which refused to allow the family unit to be challenged in any way.
In 1971, Erin Pizzy publicized yet again, the existence of battered women and their children, but a major movement did not emerge until 1975 when the National Women’s Aid Federation was set up. This arose out of the experience of groups operating refuges and encouraged a detailed examination of male violence as a means of controlling women. The structural feminist perspective that resulted has marked a major advance in providing a framework for action.
With the establishment of the Northern Ireland Women’s Aid Federation local groups in the region joined in their campaign to highlight the condition of women on the home front. The cornerstone of the campaign was the provision of Refuges and Women’s Advice Centres, but it was to spread beyond this to such issues that affected women at a more general level. The fact that there are a few broadly based or active women’s groups in Northern Ireland means that even more work falls on the Women’s aid movement.
In Derry, Women’s Aid has been intimately involved in the field of community action. It has sought to support the radical community elements who are looking for social change in society and are not content with a ‘Father Christmas’ role of running children’s parties, etc. The combination of forward looking community activities and those involved in the Women’s Movement could well be a powerful one, particularly in a region that is experiencing rapid political upheaval.