A number of ceremonies to remember the 204 women in Ireland who have been brutally murdered since 1996 are taking place throughout the county as part of the international gender violence awareness campaign - 16 Days of Action.
On Wednesday last, in Belmullet, the first of such ceremonies, organised by Iorras Le Cheile, saw a cluster of white lilies, a poignant symbol for those murdered women, floated on the tranquil waters of the canal at the footbridge in the town.
Further remembrance ceremonies are planned for Ballina, Claremorris, Castlebar, and Ballinrobe early next week.
The lilies ritual is a striking visual representation of the realities of domestic abuse and its prevalence in Ireland, often a belying calm surface hides a deep and dark world below.
In Mayo, more than 4,500 women have sought support from domestic abuse charity Mayo Women’s Support Services since it first opened its doors 20 years ago.
The service’s refuge accommodation, which can cater for five women and 19 children escaping homes wrenched apart by violence and fear, is full “pretty much all of the time”, according to MWSS support worker Carmel Burke.
It is long past time to bring domestic abuse out of the shadows, says Ms Burke, and the 16 Days of Action and associated lilies ceremonies and balloon launches is an opportunity to bring the issue to the surface, very visibly, within the communities in which gender violence is happening.
“It is a hard issue to talk about,” she acknowledged. “But if we don’t talk about it, nothing will change.
“Tackling gender violence is not just the responsibility of services like ours. It is everybody’s responsibility.
“Citizens have to start speaking out because women’s lives and their children’s lives are being destroyed.”
In Ireland, the statistics reveal the extent of the problem. Research has shown one in five women will suffer violence or abuse at the hands of a partner or husband at some point in their lives.
Ms Burke said this abuse is “happening in every county in Ireland, across all classes”. And physical violence is not the only concern.
“We have to dispel the myth that only women who are being beaten and battered regularly are living with abuse,” said Ms Burke. “Some are experiencing the most horrendous psychological and emotional abuse without ever being physically assaulted.”
Of the 204 women remembered during the 16 Days of Action - which equates to a shocking one woman killed every month over the past 18 years - some 53 per cent died at the hands of their partner or ex-partner.
For many women Ms Burke meets, the hardest thing to do is reach out as being heard can be a fearful thing too.
“In a county like Mayo there is that added rural dimension,” she described. “Very often these women live in a small community where their abuser is known by everyone.
“I have never worked with a woman who wants to use our service. Women come here because they have to and a lot of the time they will tell us ‘if you met my husband or partner you’d really like him’. He could be an upstanding member of the community.”
The 16 Days of Action commenced on November 25, the UN Day Opposing Violence Against Women and concludes on December 10, Human Rights Day.
For services such as MWSS, which is promoting the day in conjunction with Family Resource Centres and other women’s services throughout the county, the 16 Days is not only an opportunity to raise awareness on the issue of gender violence but also to encourage communities to speak out and take action together, men and women alike.
“The 16 Days is about realising that violence against women is a problem for women, an issue for men, and a responsibility of communities,” said Ms Burke.
“Let’s talk about what is happening in our communities and never ever forget the 204 women who have lost their lives.”
Next Monday, the Mayo Traveller Support Group will host a balloon launch on the Mall, Castlebar, at 12 noon in memory of Ireland’s murdered and abused women.
Claremorris FRC is hosting a balloon launch at Clare Lake on Tuesday at 2.30pm. On the same day, Tacú FRC is hosting a lilies ritual on the Robe River at Bridge Street at 1 pm.
Ballina FRC is hosting a lilies ritual on Wednesday at 12.30pm on the Moy opposite the cathedral.