By Maureen Vincent
When Mrs. Erin Pizzey started Chiswick Women's Aid in 1971 her original idea was to provide a meeting centre for women and their children, she said last week.
She added: "My husband is away a lot on business. I used to get talking to people in shops and so on, and I realised there was a real need for something of the sort in this area."
Soon after Hounslow Council had provided a small terraced house from which the projected centre might be run, Mrs. Pizzey had her first call for help from a woman who had run away from home with her children because she had been systematically battered by her husband for several years, and had had enough. So she was taken in.
This, said Mrs. Pizzey, was the first step in a process which, in a remarkably short time, built up to an attempt to cope with a problem of enormous proportions — the problem of battered women.
The majority of women are fortunate. They have never experienced or perhaps even imagined continual and pathological violence in their marriages. Some women do. For instance: Mrs. A has eight children. "Seven of them were kicked out of me," she told Mrs. Pizzey, Mrs. B, confined to a wheelchair, is married to a gambler. When he lost heavily he sometimes padlocked the wheels, locked the food cupboards and left her for days on end.
Mrs. C had her nose broken four times; her ribs were also broken. "One Friday she rang us, but she wouldn't come over for three days until she was sufficiently recovered.
"Her child had been born handicapped, probably because of the beatings. Her husband, sent to prison as a result of a murderous attack on her, assaulted her again immediately on his release."
These case histories are certainly more than enough to turn anyone's stomach. But the fact that it is much pleasanter not to know that such things can and do happen is no excuse for us to close our eyes to them.
"Unfortunately, many of the women who come to us are Catholics," said Mrs Pizzey. "This can be explained, because for non-Catholics the divorce• court offers a way out of a marriage which has become a living hell. But Catholic women will very seldom contemplate taking a divorce action."
Another factor which intensifies a bad situation where a Catholic family is concerned, she feels, is that frequently the wife will not use contraceptives and has had no opportunity for instruction in methods of family planning approved by the Church.
"This means a large family and the larger the family the less likely is it that the mother will leave the husband, her only means of support for them." When Chiswick Women's Aid started, said Mrs. Pizzey, a small group of people banded themselves together, the intention being to provide help on a range of subjects.
These included housing problems and eviction, entitlement to social security and other benefits, marriage, divorce, separation and custody, abortion and contracs.ntion, shopping and budgeting, welfare and education, and so on.
The group was to be run by and for women. Although admitting that it derived its inspiration from Women's Lib, she said it was to be nonpolitical and non-sectarian.
Chiswick Women's Aid,-after less than two years, now has a larger, eight-roomed house in addition to the original address. I visited the larger one last week. Inside the state of dccora
tion can only be described as appallins,
Paper is peeling Worn the walls, there are no carpets on the floors. In the room where Erin was in conference with a television crew were jumbled several arm chairs, a desk and filing cabinet, an efficient secretary and a coin-box telephone. A child was asleep on a sofa, People were perched on chair arms. But there was an atmosphere of order.
The kitchen is on the first floor. There are two cooking stoves, and the mothers take turns to use them. There is no hot water in the house, although a small washing machine does heat its own water.
In every other room cots and mattresses covered every available inch of floor space. Sixty-four people, mothers and children, were resident in that house on the day I visited it. As
Mrs. Pizzey said: "Can you imagine anyone coming here who had anywhere else to go?" In spite of the pathetic overcrowding and the depressing aspect of the building itself, the atmosphere was cheerful. The children all looked clean and well cared for, the mothers whom I saw were neatly dressed, the rooms were tidy as they could be made in the circumstances.
The accent is and has always been on self-help. All mothers are expected to help with running the house and with answering the telephone, which rings constantly, all too often with another desperate cry for help.
The efficient secretary whom I had noticed on arriving was blind in one eye. I was told: "Her husband kicked her."
Nobody doubts that the husbands of battered wives need help too, often psychiatric help. "They are usually mentally sick or alcoholics," Mrs. Pizzey explained.
"Sometimes the shock of the wife leaving with the children is enough to make them take a good look at themselves and try again. Often wives are willing to attempt a new start. It can work, and if it does we are obviously delighted.
"But if the husband is a psychotic or a confirmed drinker the trouble may well begin again. Such a man is not in control of himself, and good intentions count for nothing. All too frequently the wife has to come back to Chiswick Women's Aid."
Children are, of course, affected by batterings, even when not actually suffering from violence themselves, although many do. They see and hear episodes which can cause them permanent psychological damage. They often need psychiatric help themselves if the mental scars are not to be ineradicable.
Over 1,000 women a year ask Chiswick Women's Aid for assistance. Social workers, probation officers, marriage guidance councils, doctors and advice centres refer women to the centre.
There are no rules for admission. Women can come and sit talking about nothing in particular while they gain the confidence to broach the subject of their problems.
Women arc ashamed to admit that they have been beaten. For very many of them, their first visit to the centre will be the first time they have ever confided in anyone about brutality which they may have been suffering for years.
Living expenses are covered by social security payments to the women and children being given refuge. At present no rental charge is made. Hounslow Council donates the accommodation and 75 per cent of the rates, and the organisation and other help is carried out by a large number of volunteer workers, in addition to the mothers themselves.
Chiswick Women's Aid believes strongly that here are a number of deficiencies in our social system which contribute, to the problem of battered wives. These "areas of deficiency" include the hospital system, the role of doctors, the education system, the role of social services, and the attitude of local authorities, the Department of Health and Social Security, and the legal system.
As you leave the centre your eye is caught by two notices written in ink and pinned to the inside of the front door. One reads: "Always look through spy-hole before opening door." The other: "At night never open door except on chain." Vengeful husbands follow their wives even here. Some women dare not leave the centre; many have to change their children's schools for fear that their husbands will discover their whereabouts.
The deficiencies in our social structure can be made good. But enough of us will have to care deeply enough about women in this kind of trouble before something concrete is done.
You can't visit the centre, in Chiswick High Road, without learning to care.