Centre Trying to Cope with Crisis

At the Rape Crisis Centre on Belfast’s Donegall Street, director Eileen Calder is running late. A counselling session has just finished. The centre’s only other full time worker, Eileen Kelly, opens the window of the counselling room and apologises for the smell of cigarette smoke: “Some women find it very difficult to talk.”

On the table, alongside Women’s Aid leaflets and information on the Amnesty International Stop Violence Against Women campaign are two cracked coffee cups, two ashtrays and an almost empty box of Kleenex. The ashtrays are overflowing with cigarette butts and balled up tissues.

Eileen Kelly hurries about, tidying up, making coffee, going back to man the phone. She is the only staff member there.

Eileen Calder rushes in and apologises. “It’s been hectic,” she says. “It always is.”

The centre was told at the end of May that its funding, applied for every year, was to be cut, because of “concerns regarding the failure of the organisation to comply with the terms and conditions of grant funding”.

Its funding of £60,000 per year only covers two full time workers as well as the day-to- day running of the centre. Eileen Calder says that the Belfast centre is the lowest funded in Ireland.

“The funding situation here is abysmal,” she says. “We get 3000 new cases a year. We campaign for more money but it always seems to be going somewhere else.”

In answer to a Westminster question from DUP MP Iris Robinson, the British government said it was “committed” to funding services to “provide the best possible support for victims of rape and sexual violence” in the North.

The money given to the Rape Crisis Centre would be diverted to other rape and sexual assualt referral centres, it claimed.

Money for these services has always been low here, says Gar McAtamney, director of the NEXUS Institute counselling victims of sexual abuse. For example, he says, there is no Sexual Assault Referral Centre (SARC) anywhere in the North.

There are ten centres in England and Wales and one has recently opened in Glasgow. Belfast does not have one, although the British government said in June that the “option of establishing” one is “being explored”.

“There’s massive [public] support for a SARC here,” says McAtamney, “but it just isn’t happening.”

Eileen Calder feels this is because money coming into the country goes to other causes.

“While as a citizen of Northern Ireland I fully recognise the people who have been hurt through the troubles need help, therapeutic help, financial help and they need recognition that these things have happened to them,” she says, “it seems to happen at the exclusion of victims of rape and sexual abuse.”

“I don’t hold out a great deal of hope [that things will change],” she adds. “Not having a government of course makes it even more difficult, the fact that we’re dealing with British ministers whose interests are not really here in Northern Ireland and when they do take an interest in Northern Ireland it’s the political things. When they do want to fund Northern Ireland it’s for community based organisations.”

Lack of inclusion on the political agenda seems to be a major issue with rape and sexual assault or abuse in the North.

And as seen with the Attracta Harron murder, the 50% remission rule is also a major factor. Calder says that many women come to the centre for counselling, distraught that their rapist is about to be released, much earlier than they thought. Some rapists do not even go to prison.

Calder has just been counselling a young woman whose rapist walked free from court the week before due to a combination of plea-bargaining, time spent on remand and remission.

“She’s very angry about the rape, she’d be happy to talk to you, but she’s sitting her GCSEs today,” she says.

Both Calder and McAtamney say, however, that it is not just the 50% remission rule that makes rape different in the North, or even legal factors such as offenders not being electronically tagged.

Like in the South and around the world, one reason so few rapists are brought to court is that many women cannot face reporting their attack. In the North, however, this has a more sinister face.

Calder estimates that one in four of the women who come to the Rape Crisis Centre say they will not report their rape because they think the rapist is a member of a paramilitary organisation. Sometimes this is true, says Calder, but sometimes not.

“Certainly over the years I would say that one in three or one in four women coming in here are giving why they don’t want to report the fact that the perpetrator is a member of the paramilitaries,” she says. “Now sometimes the perpetrator has mistakenly led the victim to believe this when it’s not true.

“And where it is true, in general 99% of the time they’re not sanctioned by the organisation, but there’s still a factor of fear there.

“A woman may assume that a man belongs to an organisation, simply because of where he sits in a certain bar. And that’s very difficult to explain to people about Northern Ireland, that that fear is always there.”

She also says that young women who have been raped feel that society does not care about them. “And they’d be right in lots of ways,” she says.
Recent cases seem to prove her point.

On 31 May this year, Thomas Purcell, the murderer of 16 year old Megan McAlorum, was sentenced.

Like Thomas Hamilton, he was a teenager at the time of the murder and he had already been investigated by the police after a rape allegation.

In Megan’s case, although there was evidence of sex having taken place, the jury could not decide if she had been raped because her body was so badly mutilated.

This means that Purcell, who could be free by the time he is thirty, will not have to sign the sex offenders’ register when he is released.

Megan’s mother Margaret collected tens of thousands of signatures in her petition campaign for Purcell to get a full life sentence. He was sentenced to fifteen years.

The lead item on the BBC Newsline programme that evening was not Megan’s mother weeping outside court, but an update on the non-fatal shooting of UVF loyalist Mark Haddock the day before. Haddock was stable in hospital, the report said.

The conflict has made its mark in other ways too. Catholic women, from a community historically suspicious of the police, often do not trust the police enough to make a complaint of rape, even though Calder says she believes that all complainants are treated “compassionately” by the police.

She mentions one woman from West Belfast who was abused by the same relative who abused her child, and who did eventually make a report to the police.

But the woman lived in fear of other people in her community finding out, not only because she felt stigma as a victim of sexual abuse, but also because she was dealing with the police.

She felt she could not invite the police to her home and would meet them around the corner, even on the day of the trial, and she worried that the officer dealing with her case would be shot if he was seen in a nationalist area.

The fact that the rapist is a paramilitary means he can have other, literal, weapons at his disposal as well as fear. Rape at gunpoint in the North is “significantly higher” in Belfast than London or Dublin, according to a Rape Crisis report about rape in all three cities.

Although it could be argued, correctly, that being raped, in itself or at gunpoint, is a terrible experience anywhere, Calder has written that the paramilitary element makes being raped at gunpoint in Northern Ireland “a qualitively different experience than in the Republic or Britain,” because “the rapist’s possession of a weapon takes on a different, more powerfully sinister meaning.”

“Guns are part of Northern Irish history and always have been,” she says.

Rapes not being reported, low conviction rates, rapists being released early…so far, so rest of the world.

In the North, though, the religious bent to most of the political parties and many campaign groups keep women’s rights, not just related to rape sentencing, lower on the agenda than anywhere else.

A few doors down from NEXUS, on Belfast’s University Street, the Family Planning Association do what Family Planning Associations do everywhere – offer advice and information on contraception.

But the Belfast branch has two protestors, a man and a woman, outside, tying posters to lampposts. The posters show mangled, bloody fetuses with twisted limbs; the caption reads: “Abortion is murder.”

A poster tied to a lamppost outside NEXUS says abortion causes breast cancer.

It is the same day that Belfast City Airport is renamed after George Best, who was also known for his violent rows with his second wife Alex yet who has gone from hero to superhero status in his native city.

“For the period of the Troubles issues to do with rape and women’s rights were brushed under the carpet,” Gar McAtamney says. “We need to do a lot of work.”