By Christina Kerrigan, Community Development and Partnerships officer with the Traveller Movement
The constant talk of death by suicide is beyond shocking in the Traveller community. Hearing more and more, that people have ended their lives because of the shame they felt over their sexuality has been a real eye opener for me. People have had to suppress who they really are because of fear that not only could this truth shame or cause harm to them as individuals, but that they fear the wider repercussions for their family, from those in the community who do not accept it.
There are many Travellers who do not believe that homosexuality is a natural occurrence, instead they think that the devil has got into these individuals. Some of these individuals are being dragged across the country to healing people and Holy wells in an attempt to ‘cure’ them. Others are turning to faith groups to justify their prejudice, and we have worked with young, vulnerable people who have been further damaged by this.
"Religion often plays a big part in Traveller lives, from sexuality to gender roles. The expectation in some families, is that the man will have a dominant role and the woman should be pure, respectable and have no sexual relationships before marriage".
You would hope that when a woman does get married and choose to share her life with this man, that they will be happy and he will love and cherish her, sadly this is not always the case. Who and where do these women turn to when they are married and suffering domestic abuse? When they are being controlled, hurt and humiliated? When they are suffering mental health issues at a young age but are afraid to speak to a doctor? Afraid because they are told your children will be taken by social services if they hear you are in a violent relationship or are not coping as a Mother.
I believe some Travellers get married too young. Too young to know if this is what you want for the rest of your life. Too young, naive and sometimes uneducated to understand the responsibilities and pressures that will come. Sadly, some families do not believe in divorce and believe it’s a mortal sin. As the old saying goes ‘you made your bed now lay in it’. It’s sad because as a Traveller woman in this situation it seems in your mind so much easier to take your own life than to leave your husband.
“When you leave him, you can lose your community, your respect and your name, and that is what you lose when you can leave. A lot of time leaving is impossible and the thought of social services being involved in your family makes you a failure as a mother”.
Suicide rates are through the roof and many of these are no doubt influenced by experiences of shaming. Whether it is because of a person’s sexuality, or if it is a young girl who “got a name for herself” and ends her own life, all because of the shame they are made to feel by their own people. This is not to say that people cannot have their own beliefs and values, it is that it is damaging to impose these beliefs and values on others. We all have a limit and when that limit is breached, we hurt. This limit can manifest itself in self-medication, whether through alcohol, prescription or illegal drugs and at worst self-harm and suicide. Is this really where we want to be going? Have enough of our people not already died before their time? Has shaming not already done enough harm?
“The shaming that goes on in our community, which results in the suicides of many, is our biggest shame”.
It is no longer enough for us to cry and share rants of rage on Facebook when we find our young people hanging at the end of a rope or slipping away from us on an overdose of drugs. Instead we must stop and think about how we are contributing to this cycle of shame. How we may inadvertently be handing these people the rope to take their own lives. Shaming needs to stop!