Ireland’s abused wait in hope

Victims of ill-treatment and torture of the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland may soon receive redress and compensation for the abuses they endured. Today, the government of Ireland received – and will reportedly release – a report on its role in the abuses at the Magdalene Laundries.

For decades, young women and girls toiled in the laundries, an Catholic-run institution where the girls were essentially enslaved – made to work without pay and endure mental and physical abuse.

From the mid-1920s to 1996, state courts or even families would send ‘fallen girls’, often young girls who were pregnant and unmarried, or the children of such women, to the laundries. There, they were forced to work – Maureen Sullivan, now 60, told the BBC that during her time at the laundries she worked from 6am to 9pm, seven days a week until she was 16. Girls knitted clothes, scrubbed floors and washed clothes and bed linens for hotels, the army and others. This was all done without pay while many women and girls suffered sexual, psychological and physical abuse.

While Peter Mullen’s 2002 film The Magdalene Sisters shocked many by its portrayal of the laundries, former Magdalene inmate Mary-Jo McDonagh told Mullan that the reality of the Magdalene Asylums was much worse than depicted in the film.

But few in Ireland, outside the Magdalene women, are understood to have known the extent of the abuse and ill-treatment going on. Research conducted by lawyer Maeve O’Rourke, who also campaigns on behalf of the survivors, claimed that the state was complicit in the torture and abuse as it sent girls to the laundries and, although dealing with them commercially, failed to inspect or regulate the institutions. Approximately 30,000 girls and young women are believed to have been involuntarily incarcerated in the institutions run by the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, the Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy, the Religious Sisters of Charity and the Sisters of the Good Shepherd.

In 2011, the UN Committee against Torture condemned the Irish government for failing to investigate these claims of abuse and ill-treatment at the Magdalene Laundries:

The Committee is gravely concerned at the failure by the State party to protect girls and women who were involuntarily confined between 1922 and 1996 in the Magdalene Laundries, by failing to regulate and inspect their operations, where it is alleged that physical, emotional abuses and other ill-treatment were committed, amounting to breaches of the Convention [PDF]

They were directed to begin formal inquiry. Furthermore, the UN committee called on the Irish government to establish a system for redress, rehabilitation and compensation for the survivors.

Many survivors are now threatening a hunger strike if they government does not provide for a thorough system of redress.

It’s time for an apology, and it’s time for redress. The survivors of the Magdalene Laundries, who have for too long been silenced and the crimes they suffered overlooked, deserve a thorough system of rehabilitation and compensation. It is their right.

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