Wednesday 17 January 2018

Violent Irish women: 'I lost sight in my eye after an attack by a girl I knew since primary school'

What's behind the growing trend of women perpetrating violent acts?

Survivor: Kayleigh Cullinan was left blind in one eye after an attack by a group of girls when she was 15. Photo: Caroline Quin.
Survivor: Kayleigh Cullinan was left blind in one eye after an attack by a group of girls when she was 15. Photo: Caroline Quin.
Kayleigh had to undergo 11 operations on her right eye after the assault.

Gabrielle Monaghan

One cold evening in November 2010, as I paid for a bar of chocolate at a Grafton Street newsagent, I heard a young female voice growling the words "What are YOU looking at?" in my direction.

In my experience, this question almost always spells trouble. Especially if you're looking at nothing but a fistful of loose change.

I briefly glimpsed to my left and saw a girl, probably in her late teens, glaring at me with wild eyes. Since I would rather chew off my own arm that be drawn into any form of confrontation, I ignored her and made straight for the exit.

Seconds later, after I stepped out onto the street, I felt a shot of pain pierce through the back of my head. When the shock subsided, it dawned on me that she was singling me out for an attack and wasn't finished with me yet. The girl with the wild eyes was dragging me down to the ground by my hair, trying and failing to prise my handbag from my arms, and punching and kicking me in front of her two male friends.

After spending a couple of hours at a crowded A&E with a throbbing headache, it turned out I was relatively fortunate - I didn't even have a concussion. Indeed, the only lasting damage I suffered was to the confidence I once had while walking Dublin's streets; these days, I always keep one eye out for potential random attackers and it is the so-called gentler sex I fear most.

The majority of violent crimes are committed by men - a tiny minority of men. But the proportion of such crimes perpetrated by young women is higher than it was a decade ago. Offences range from teenage girls carrying out unprovoked attacks on strangers or classmates and 20-something girls brawling in the street after bingeing on alcohol or drugs, to wives or girlfriends physically assaulting their partners.

Domestic abuse rates typically surge over the Christmas period, often because a violent spouse or partner has been drinking more. While charities estimate that the vast majority of victims of these crimes are women, the kind of festive season just passed is perilous for both sexes.

The week after Christmas, the Dublin District Family Court heard the case of a man whose wife of 36 years stabbed him in the neck with a scissors, pushed him down a stairs and threw a hammer at him. Amen, the support service for men experiencing domestic abuse, fielded a 37pc increase in calls and emails in 2014, with the greatest growth in contact from men under 30.

The proportion of women aged 30 and under arrested in 2014 on suspicion of violent crimes like assault and attempted murder stood at 17.9pc, up from 16.2pc 10 years earlier, according to CSO statistics. Women of all ages were behind 1,470 of these offences in 2014, compared to 1,287 a decade earlier, the figures show.

Female aggression can start at a young age. When I went to a strict all-girls secondary school in the early 1990s, it was rare to see girls physically fighting each other - though I do remember seeing clumps of hair on the corridor after one particularly vicious brawl.

Girls, I thought, were more likely to wage psychological warfare, by ostracising other girls from their social circle, making fun of their appearance, or gossiping about them. This remains the case today, though it's more evident now than it was in the pre-social media age.

Fighting, back then, was what teenage boys did in laneways after school.

But, according to a survey published in December by NUI Galway, 17pc of girls aged 10 to 17 reported last year they had been in a physical fight in the previous couple of months. Dr Michal Molcho, one of the main authors of the report, which was carried out in collaboration with the World Health Organization, says schoolgirls in Ireland are not growing out of fighting at the same rate as they do in other countries and academics are not sure why.

"Fighting is part of a class of behaviours - girls who fight are more likely to be engaged in other risky behaviours and may have poor relationships with their parents," says Dr Molcho, a sociologist and lecturer in health promotion at NUI Galway.

"We do know that schoolgirls who drink and smoke are much more likely to be violent and, in the extreme, are more likely to carry weapons.

"There was a time that boys were more likely to drink and smoke than girls, but that changed about 15 to 20 years ago. In most European countries, girls are catching up with boys, and that could be do with feminism and girls being allowed to do everything boys can."

Schoolgirls aren't just taking out their youthful aggression on their peers; in November, the Dublin Children's Court heard how a 14-year-old girl on acid took part in a "savage" gang attack that rendered a 28-year-old man unconscious.

Kayleigh Cullinan knows first hand just how vicious some young girls can be. The 20-year-old former Voice of Ireland contestant from Kimmage in Dublin, was so badly beaten by a girl in 2010 that she lost virtually all sight in one eye. Kayleigh was just 15 at the time and had known her assailant since primary school.

The girl had allegedly been the ringleader in the psychological bullying of Kayleigh for years. One day, while en route to a friend's house, Kayleigh's bully cornered her with a group of about 14 other teenagers. The teenagers goaded the bully into kicking, biting and hitting Kayleigh.

"She pulled my ponytail and punched me in the face," she says. "She punched me on top of my right temple, just above my eyebrow, and the punch was so hard that there was an impression of my teeth on my lip for two weeks."

After her escape, Kayleigh retreated to her bedroom for weeks. The first time she ventured out, to the local shop, Kayleigh bumped into a girl who told her the onlookers had filmed the attack on their phones.

Ten months later, the black dots that Kayleigh had begun seeing in one eye turned into flashing lights. She was eventually diagnosed with a detached retina as a result of a head injury and had been gradually losing her sight. In the last five years, Kayleigh has undergone 11 eye surgeries and now only has 5pc vision in one eye.

"After my second or third operation, I wasn't in the mood to talk to anyone, because I felt so violated and so upset that this had happened," she says.

"I wouldn't say I was suicidal; I didn't want to die but I didn't want to be here at all."

Kayleigh made the most of her long recovery. Because she was forced to lie with her head face down in a pillow for 23 hours a day to aid the healing process and couldn't watch TV or read, Kayleigh only had her iPod as entertainment. As she sang along to her favourite songs, her family and friends discovered Kayleigh was blessed with a great singing voice. A YouTube recording of her singing Nella Fantasia and of her injuries went viral and her ordeal was featured in an MTV series called Bullied.

But Kayleigh, now a full-time singer and an anti-bullying campaigner, believes society underestimates some girls' capacity for violence.

"People dismiss aggression in girls and just say 'hormones have a lot to answer for', and a lot of mothers would say 'my little girl wouldn't do something like this'," Kayleigh says.

"They misjudge girls, saying 'all they do is bitch, whereas guys just fight and get it over with'. But the aggression seems to be even across both sexes nowadays. And people can type comments on their phone about a girl and amp up the aggression towards them until it spirals out of control."

For some young female perpetrators, this violence doesn't peter out once they reach adulthood. Alcohol-fuelled assaults among women in their 20s are common occurrences too; the Irish Taxi Drivers Federation has said drivers are increasingly reluctant to pick up drunk women on their own because of attacks by female passengers using stiletto heels, nail files or simply their bare hands.

Drivers are loath to report these incidents to the gardaí because they are often embarrassed about being attacked by a woman. This mentality is also common among men who have been abused by their girlfriend or spouse, as Philip, an Irishman in his 30s who asked not be identified, knows only too well.

He sank into a depression after the end of an abusive relationship, during which he never revealed to his family or friends that he was being subjected to violence, controlling behaviour and emotional abuse from his girlfriend.

Arguments would result in her "slapping and kicking me, as well as throwing drinks over me", Philip says. "On one occasion, she threw a glass tumbler that would have slashed my face had I not blocked it with my arm, which was cut open as a result.

"On two separate occasions, she told mutual friends that I was physically abusing her. This was not true. She liked to punish and had many subtle and not subtle ways of doing it."

Philip didn't realise until he received counselling that her behaviour had amounted to abuse. "It took six months for the fog to lift and for me to regain the sense of self that had been lost in the relationship," he says. "Over two years later, I am not fully healed."

Irish Independent

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