Women's Refuges and the Obligation to Protect Women from Violence

This morning when I logged into Facebook I saw a post from Women’s Aid Dundalk announcing that the refuge there is to close. The full announcement reads as follows:

It is with regret that we inform you that Women’s Aid Dundalk Refuge will close on the 27th of June 2014. We have been in negotiations with Louth Local Authority since March 2013 in relation to the initial proposed 66% reduction in Section 10 funding to our service. Despite our best efforts, we were informed on the 26th of March 2014, that due to a National directive, a maximum of €20000 will be allocated to Women’s Aid Dundalk for the provision of refuge in 2014. €20000 represents a 75% reduction in 2012 funding and is not sufficient to operate the refuge. This decimation of funding has left us with no alternative but to close.

It is our firm belief that the refuge continues to be a necessary response to women and children experiencing Domestic Violence. We could not accommodate 293 requests for refuge in 2013. The Louth, Cavan and Monaghan region is currently operating 38% below the Council of Europe’s recommended level of refuge provision. Our closure will increase this to 57% below the recommended level of refuge provision.

Council of Management, Women’s Aid Dundalk

This announcement should be of grave concern. As a result, women in that area who need refuge from domestic violence (and frequently also the children whom they bring with them from violent homes) will become even more vulnerable. Furthermore, the closure of such supports—which are heavily dependent on the state and, indeed, which act as mechanisms by which the state provides support and protection to women—calls into question compliance with international human rights law.

It will perhaps come as no surprise to hear that the United Nations has found that as a global figure around a third of women are beaten, coerced into sex, or abused by a partner at some point over their lives. Lest we should think this is not a problem in Europe, the Fundamental Rights Agency just last month released the results of its study on violence against women in the European Union. The results make for sobering reading, including the finding that 22% of women who are or have been in a relationship with a man have been subjected to physical and/or sexual violence. Of particular importance is the finding that “Evidence shows that a significant number of women continue to be vulnerable to abuse in the after- math of violent relationships. Protection needs to be offered to them”. Obviously refuge is one form of such protection.

Thankfully international and European human rights law have firmly recognised that violence against women is a matter of public concern and one in relation to which the state holds serious responsibilities.

In Europe, a major breakthrough came with the case of Opuz v Turkey (incidentally supported by Interrights as a third part intervener, which is also to close for lack of funding) in which the Court held that positive obligations arising under Articles 2 and 3 can be applied in the context of domestic violence so that there is “a primary duty on the State to secure [rights] by putting in place effective criminal-law provisions to deter the commission of offences against the person backed up by law-enforcement machinery for the prevention, suppression and punishment of breaches of such provisions. It also extends in appropriate circumstances to a positive obligation on the authorities to take preventive operational measures to protect an individual whose life is at risk from the criminal acts of another individual” (para 128). (Although we should not forget the important case of Bevacqua & S v Bulgaria).

Within the Council of Europe rights architecture more broadly the idea of positive obligations/due diligence in respect of protecting women from violence including domestic violence has taken hold. In 2002 a Recommendation by the Committee of Ministers endorsed a due diligence approach.

On the international front, the principle of due diligence in the context of domestic violence has developed to an impressive extent. The due diligence concept in rights protection got its beginnings in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights decision in Velasquez Rodriguez v. Honduras in 1988, which concerned enforced disappearances, so that the state is obliged to exercise due diligence in ensuring the protection and fulfillment of lawfully protected rights. This was picked up in the context of violence against women in the UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence Against Women, the Inter-American Commission (especially in Maria da Penha Maia Fernandes v. Brazil), the CEDAW Committee (in AT v Hungary), by the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, and even the then Secretary General of the UN Kofi Annan when he strongly endorsed a due diligence standard in relation to violence against women in 2006. In this context the case of AT v Hungary is especially interesting as one of the bases for the violation was that the available shelters were not sufficiently equipped for the woman to use them as her disabled son could not be accommodated there.

All of this goes to say that budgetary decisions relating to the levels of support that are provided to protective mechanisms such as women’s refuges are not merely financial decisions. They have implications for lives, for safety and indeed for rights.

Given the high levels of susceptibility to violence after the breakdown of a relationship as well as the well-documented difficulty that women (especially but not only poorer women and women with children) experience in leaving violent environments, one has to wonder at the extent to which decisions that effectively shut down such refuges have on the vindication of individual rights. Organs of the state, including local authorities, are of course required to act in compliance with Ireland’s obligations under the ECHR in carrying out their functions by virtue of s.3 of the ECHR Act 2003, as well as the state generally being obliged to comply with its international obligations. This is without even mentioning the constitutional right to bodily integrity.

Bearing all of this in mind, announcements such as this—which make women in Louth, Cavan and Monoghan even more vulnerable—call our commitment to effective rights protection into serious question.


Women's Refuges and the Obligation to Protect Women from Violence

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *