Since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, many people and families have been confined to their homes for extended periods of time as part of government-mandated lockdowns. Across the globe, this has worsened conditions within volatile households and relationships. Aoibhneas, an Irish support group for women and children victimised by domestic abuse, recorded an increase of 125% in calls to their national helpline from March to August 2020. An Garda Síochána also confirmed to the Irish Examiner in March 2021 that domestic assaults had increased by almost a quarter over the last 12 months. Behind all of these figures lies a face, a life, a story – a woman.
Irene is a Ukrainian-born Zumba instructor, nutritionist, and fitness model. She is a single mother of two, who emigrated to Ireland with her then-husband in 2005. Irene bravely came forward to speak about her experience with domestic abuse, as she would like to serve as an inspiration to women suffering in similar situations.
Irene is very open about her story, although it is evident that the memory still affects her greatly. Her story began in 1997 when she met her ex-husband. The pair had only dated for a year before they decided to tie the knot. Irene was 18 and her ex was 21 at the time of their wedding. Irene recollects the wedding with a heartbreaking expression.
On the day of their wedding, her father-in-law came to speak with her. Irene described the experience as a strange and rather unsettling memory. Her father-in-law warned her and begged her not to marry his son. Although Irene was confused and caught off guard, she didn’t think much of his warnings and proceeded with the wedding. Irene sighs while thinking about their wedding day: “It was really embarrassing to apologize to our guests for all the times my husband swore and acted irrationally. I expected this to be the happiest moment of my life and there he was, cursing at his mother, sister, and anyone who ticked him off that day.”
“The truth is you can’t change people. I don’t regret marrying him. The only thing I can thank him for is my two daughters. I just wish I noticed the signs sooner and left before things got worse.”
Irene sits back for a while and looks at the ground before she speaks about the time her husband smashed their wedding photograph. “It was hurtful… Like, that was our wedding photograph! I knew for certain things wouldn’t work out; it was a sign! Crawling around the corridor picking up the pieces of broken glass was almost symbolic. For twelve years, I was trying my best to keep the marriage together, for the kids at least… I thought I could change him. The truth is you can’t change people. I don’t regret marrying him. The only thing I can thank him for is my two daughters. I just wish I noticed the signs sooner and left before things got worse.”
Irene shrugs at being asked why she stayed in this violent marriage for so long: “It’s hard to leave a person who is so controlling. I was scared. The other factor is that when we came to Ireland, all I had was him. I didn’t know that there were helplines I could contact; my English was very bad which also hindered my confidence. I was a bit embarrassed to leave him, divorce isn’t something my family supported. Their concern was how the children would grow up in a broken home. It’s not that easy to just up and leave!”
Irene says, “he had really angry eyes. The first time he hit me I didn’t know what to do. When we went back to Ukraine for a vacation, I told his mother that he started physically abusing me and then showed her my fresh bruises. She just shrugged and said there was nothing she could do. For the longest time, I was too afraid to tell my own mother. I was embarrassed and ashamed of the fact that I let him treat me like that. He would often take away our Wi-Fi so that I couldn’t communicate with my mother and sister back in Ukraine. I was getting desperate and depressed. I started hating myself every time I looked in the mirror. I didn’t like the weak woman I saw before me. I started planning on how I would leave him. I contacted a woman’s shelter and my close friend. I was ready to leave.”
“I contacted the Cuan Saor Women’s Refuge & Support Service,” she says. They were suggested to me by my friend who knew about my situation.” Cuan Saor is also responsible for the #toointoyou campaign which was shared around NUI Galway last semester. Their core belief is that: “abuse against women and children must become unacceptable at every level of Irish society.”
“I no longer hate the woman looking back at me in the mirror. I know she is strong,” says Irene. “I became a Zumba instructor. I travelled half of Europe with my kids. My daughters are free to live without a verbally and physically abusive father. All I can say is that I am grateful to Ireland and the people who supported me through that difficult time.” Irene’s living room is decorated with various diplomas certifying her achievements as an instructor, as well as the many “Thank you” cards she has received from her students who are mainly women struggling with self-image and personal difficulties.
Irene smirks, “they’re not just my students. I don’t just forget about them once I get home. They’re my Zumba family. The progress these women have made is amazing. The enthusiasm I get from my students and the progress they make during my classes make me feel like I’ve done something with my life. I was once like some of the women in my classes; unsure of myself and wanting to improve. I only hope that I continue to inspire these women and push them to reach their personal goals.” Irene became a Zumba instructor close to five years ago and throughout those years, she has had many ups and downs. Irene describes those challenges as the building blocks for the growth of her career.
“My struggles with domestic abuse and the difficulties of living in a foreign country so far from family failed to break me and my spirit,” says Irene. “Never ever submit to abuse! Never allow anybody to walk all over you! You are strong and you will get through anything, you just got to make that first step.”
Names in this article have been changed to maintain confidentiality.
If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, the following organisations may be able to help:
Cuan Saor Women’s Refuge & Support Service
Phone: 1800 576757 (24-hour helpline)
Phone: 1800 341 900 (24 hour helpline)
Dublin Rape Crisis Centre
Phone: 1800 77 8888 (24 hour helpline)
Phone: 01 867 0701 (24 hour helpline)
Featured photo by Melanie Wasser
This article was supported by: STAND Women Editor Ellen + Programme Assistant Alex