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Regina Coeli: Women Under Attack Yet Again!

13 February 2022

Regina Coeli House has been operating in west Belfast since 1935,
but it's doors are due to close at the end of February.

Late last year the workers and residents at Regina Coeli House, a women's shelter, were informed that the facility was to close, citing problems with the building's safety.  The building, owned by the Legion of Mary, has been described by the organisation as being in need of half a million pounds worth of repairs.

The workers in the facility, which is ran by a management team but staffed by volunteers, are organised in Unite the Union which requested to see the evidence contained in the building survey and who “offered to pay for a second professional survey so that if there were any issues, we could initiate immediate discussions on how to solve them and keep the doors to Regina Coeli House open.”

In the absence of any progress on the issue the workers launched an occupation, described as a  “work-in”, in early January.  Their protest was an attempt to draw attention to the plight of the residents who are refusing to leave as the options presented to them are highly unsuitable; they face either being placed in mixed sex accommodation, or single unit temporary accommodation which has no facility to provide essential supports and onsite counselling services.

In an era when women are constantly under attack by males encroaching on women only spaces in fields as diverse as sport and prison facilities this facility is all the more obviously an increasingly isolated haven.  It is the sole women-only hostel in the North which provides accommodation for survivors of domestic abuse, trafficking, homelessness, addiction, mental health issues and other forms of trauma.

There is widespread support for the campaign with expressions of support from a broad range of organisations and an online petition to keep the facility open which very quickly surpassed 10,000 signatures. Yet the status quo has been maintained.

The response by the management committee to the attempt at self defence by the women who work and volunteer at the facility as well as the residents was described as “reprehensible” by Unite.  They are completely correct!  They refused to talk to the union suspended their employees and stopped food deliveries to the facility.  This was promptly followed up with plans to evict the residents and the occupying workers; and one of the workers involved and a homeless woman have been served legal papers by the Regina Coeli management committee.

The management committee's hard line approach to the occupation is driven by the need to; "… get the building back so we can hand it over to the Legion of Mary as vacant possession" – and behind that necessity, at arms length, is the driving force of the Board of Trustees on which sits the representatives of the religious orders and the Legion of Mary.

There we have it.  Vulnerable women are at the mercy of privately owned charitable organisations, little state support is available.  The reason the charity exists is because it fills a niche vacated by the provision of social care and women who aren't caught in that scant charitable safety net are at the tender mercies of their abusers or the streets.

Sinn fein with the DUP at their shoulder have proudly announced 'Domestic Abuse Strategies' at Stormont,  as if it represents a progressive achievement for the reactionary sectarian state, but a look at the practicalities reveals that care provision is dependent on the voluntary sector, in this case indirectly on the Catholic Church, and that is at a premium.  But while reforms that would boost the provision of care for women who are the victims of a sexist society would be welcome it is sexist society itself we must destroy.

The residents at Regina Coeli represent only those at sharpest edge of a misognyistic society, the oppression of women more generally has repeatedly presented violent peaks of abuse but there is a high plateau of  “acceptable”  misogny that these peaks stand on.   Women are repeatedly being attacked and their rights to women only spaces, one of the key concerns of the women in Regina Coeli, continuously being eroded for example.  It is only weeks since the murder of Ashling Murphy and the mawkish outpouring of sentiment by those in power yet now we find this refuge under serious threat. The insincerity stinks but that insincerity can exist due to a lack of mass opposition.

The charitable organisation's response is also “reprehensible” indeed.  They prefer women to remain passive victims.  Show one ounce of defiance, or fight independently for women's interests and very quickly the full weight of the organisation is directed against you and ownership of the facility quickly becomes the driving issue.

The fight against this form of oppression is inseperable from the fight against the capitalist system that produces it.  Mass opposition to everything foul about modern capitalist society is long overdue and mass resistance to the systemic abuse of women leads the field.  No more deaths, no more depression, no more break downs, no more broken bones.  Organise in whatever way you can, and we can take a first step towards that by demanding; fully funded, safe spaces for vulnerable women.  Now!

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