Sabina attends Women’s Aid Armagh Down 40th Anniversary celebration

Wed 28th Feb, 2024 | 09:00
location: Canal Court Hotel, Newry, Co. Down

Speech by Sabina Higgins at Women’s Aid Armagh Down 40th Anniversary

Canal Court Hotel Newry, Wednesday, 28th February 2024

Dear friends,

I am delighted to have the opportunity to join you all here this morning, for what is a most important event, marking as it does 40 years of Women's Aid Armagh Down and the tireless efforts of staff and volunteers in supporting women and children who have endured the harrowing effects of domestic abuse. 

May I thank Eileen Murphy for the kind invitation, and all those involved in Women’s Aid Armagh Down who have helped in making today’s event possible. 

Safety, support, and hope are not just mere words - they are the guiding principles that represent the foundation upon which countless lives have been rebuilt and have been offered a beacon of light in the darkness of domestic violence. 

Safety, support and hope are the pillars which have supported the mission of Women's Aid for four decades, in it’s reaching out a hand of friendship and support to those who have found themselves trapped in cruel and abusive relationships, and  support to their children who regularly witness brutality and aggression in their own homes.

We have as a society come a long way. It has been welcome but so overdue, in terms of our capacity to address publicly, as matters of collective concern, the issues of domestic violence, sexual abuse, sexual violence and non-consensual pressure.

Thanks to the determination of so many women’s groups and others, domestic violence and sexual violence have progressively acquired the levels of recognition that they deserve. Victims are more willing in recent times to come forward and seek support. Rape, sexual abuse and domestic violence are now acknowledged for what they are – that is, heinous crimes of the gravest sort.

However, as we acknowledge the strides that we have made as a society, we must also confront the sobering reality that there is still so much work to be done. 

In recent times we have been shocked by tragic events of violence, leading to the deaths of young women. Young women with so much potential and possibility of fulfillment, have had their lives taken, leaving heartbroken those who loved and cared for them. The families who mourn them are not alone in asking the basic question as to what kind of society it is that continues to hold within it, and tolerate, behaviour that allows women become the victims of discrimination, belittlement, abuse and aggression.

It is alarming, and it remains a cause for great concern, that gender violence and domestic violence remain so prevalent in our society. If I may, just give some figures, last year alone:

  • 13,341 women and children accessed Women's Aid community support across Northern Ireland; 
  • 2,557 women and children were supported by Women's Aid Armagh Down, through locally based refuge, community support or other Women's Aid projects;
  • 940 women and children stayed in a Women's Aid refuge within Northern Ireland.

These statistics tell us that we still have some road to travel before the scourge of domestic violence is eradicated on our island.

We must continue to use every means we have at our disposal, to tackle gender violence, to prevent, expose, and redress the devastation it causes to the lives of too many women and children. 

We must do everything we can, to ensure that these women and children are enabled to emancipate themselves from the effects this violence has on their entire existence – and do our best to ensure that they are enabled to recover their lives, lives to which personal integrity, hope and meaning are restored.

The quality of what we provide as the environment for families is so important, there should be acceptance of giving priority to what is necessary for fulfilment. 

In general environment for families would be so much better if society had good basic essential public services that were sufficient to meet peoples needs.  Universal Basic Public Services are housing, health, education, transport, communication.

As the first, and most crucial step away from fear and violence, and the return back to normal life, when necessary, families must be provided with safe and suitable accommodation and services suitable to their needs, size of family and the length of time they will require this support.

One of the most pressing issues we face is the urgent need to raise awareness of the devastating effects of domestic abuse on children. We cannot afford to turn a blind eye to the trauma and scars that linger long after the physical wounds have healed. 

Research has shown that children who witness domestic violence are more likely to experience a myriad of negative outcomes, including poor academic performance, behavioural problems, and a possible perpetuation of the cycle of violence in their own lives.

All too regularly we read reports of women being abused physically and psychologically, controlled, humiliated, stalked, attacked and terrorised. We hear of the organisations that fail to deal with abuse, hierarchy who turn a blind eye to the exploitation and ill treatment that continues to be experienced by so many of their female members. We witness the casual misogyny, the vulgar comments, the online abuse meted out daily to women and considered by too many men and for too long to be acceptable, harmless and even humorous. We listen to their stories and we are shocked, appalled and angry. Listening, however, is not enough, we need to talk about it and we need to act.

Across all spectrums and fields of Irish society, we must begin to consider and discuss, the actions that are necessary to prevent any continuing to ignore, or at worst facilitating and enabling, the discrimination and abuse that so many women suffer and tolerate in their daily lives.

We must recognise that a culture that accepts and fails to speak out against the daily forms of abuse and belittlement of women is a culture that silently enables its endurance and escalation, with often serious consequences, such as ill treatment, exploitation and even death.

Countries that are safe for the women and girls that inhabit them, can only grow from societies and communities that recognise the basic dignity that is the source of rights. In order to ever achieve such places of safety, we must teach our young males to be knowingly respectful of women in the way they treat and speak about their fellow citizens.

Education is key in breaking this cycle of violence and for creating a future where every child has the opportunity to thrive in a safe and nurturing environment. Furthermore, education serves as a catalyst for change within communities. By educating both women and men about gender equality and respectful relationships, we lay the foundation for a culture of mutual respect and understanding. We challenge harmful stereotypes and norms that perpetuate violence, fostering an environment where everyone is valued and respected regardless of gender.

The importance of schools at all levels, crèche, primary and second level in prioritising their curriculum dealing with a child’s health and wellbeing in sex and sexuality education, in a gradual and age appropriate way is essential. Programmes like the stay safe at the youngest level and SPHE – Social Personal and Health Education programmes and the RSE, Relationship and Sexuality Education at an older age.

I also think that the encouraging and persuading of parents to attend courses on parenting that this become the norm would be so beneficial to the parents, the children, the schools and society.

Despite the resistance there was to the recognition of parents as partners in education and the establishment of parent’s councils, they are now acknowledged as an invaluable and an essential part of the education system.

I have long been an advocate of the importance of philosophy and P for C, philosophy for children being taught in schools. Philosophy is a powerful preparation for the journey upon which young people, from wherever they may come, will embark.  By integrating philosophical concepts and insights into education programmes, we can empower individuals to challenge harmful beliefs and behaviours, fostering a culture of empathy and understanding in the spaces and places of education.  It is so important, too, that our children feel free and learn to articulate 
their thoughts and provide justifications for them, and that they find ways of disagreeing without resorting to violence, whether verbal or physical.

Research shows that we must think seriously as a country and in communities as to what action needs to be taken to stop the unnecessary pain and suffering that is being inflicted on one part of our people by another part of our people. Tragically, too it is the case that it is ignorance, arrogance, the stupidity or backwardness that leads a person to violate their own human dignity, by violating another person’s dignity.

How can we instil in the beautiful children , and in young adults, such an awareness of their own dignity and self-worth so that they can cope with their personalities, develop character, and make a commitment to ethical behaviour, and never resort to violence on another person.

I actually think myself that if for example yoga was practiced in primary and secondary school it would develop the self-control and management of anger and frustration, and that it would help see people able to take responsibility for decent behaviour.

I think too that one’s family and education have a great role to play – in building in children a consciousness of their human dignity, and the respect that is due to them, and is due by them to every other person – giving them an awareness of their right not to be bullied or insulted; a confidence as to what to do, and how to speak up, and get help, if they or others are being bullied or abused or belittled.

As we look ahead to the better future, let us not forget the powerful role that each and every one of us can play in shaping it. 
Indeed, activism is not just about raising awareness – it is about sparking meaningful change and creating a world where every individual, regardless of gender, background or circumstance, can live free from fear and violence. It is about challenging the societal norms and attitudes that perpetuate inequality and injustice. It is about standing in solidarity with survivors, offering them the support and resources they need to reclaim their lives and their dignity.

At the heart of all of our efforts is the great shared universal project that is the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals. These goals, adopted by the global community as part of the United Nations 2030 Agenda, are a blueprint for creating a more peaceful, equitable and sustainable world. Goal 5, in particular, focuses on gender equality and empowering women and girls. It recognizes that gender equality is not only a fundamental human right but a necessary foundation for a just and sustainable world. We are still some way off the achievement of this Goal, despite progress in many areas, both in Ireland and around the world. The global community must therefore redouble its efforts so as to achieve this goal by 2030 as it has committed to do.  

Finally, I would like to congratulate Women’s Aid Armagh Down on their many years of generous and committed support to those who are marginalised or isolated within the community. I thank you for the positive impact you have had on so many lives, and wish you every success as you continue to grow and extend your services to victims of domestic abuse.
In closing, let us recommit ourselves to the principles of safety, support, and hope that have guided Women's Aid for the past four decades. Let us stand together as advocates, united in our pursuit of a future where every child can grow up in a world free from violence and oppression. And let us never lose sight of the transformative power of education and the Sustainable Development Goals, for it is through knowledge, understanding, and collective action that we will truly change the world.

Thank you.