Saturday 20 April 2019

Followed, groped, threatened - why women demand better

The tragic case of Karen Buckley plays on our worst fears. But how can society make women feel safe?

Tragic: Karen Buckley
Tragic: Karen Buckley
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

Every parent of teenage girls and young women waits anxiously at night for the click of the key in the door, and a sign that their daughter has returned home after a night out. Their ultimate fear is that what happened to Karen Buckley on a night out a fortnight ago in Glasgow will happen to them - that their daughter will go out one night and never make it home.

The dignified expressions of desperation by the Buckley family in the aftermath of her disappearance echoed across Ireland and beyond.

"There was a terrible sense of shock among students," says Annie Hoey, equality officer of the Union of Students of Ireland. "It was such an exceptional, extreme case. It really hit home that incidents like this are a reality."

We sadly have to face the fact that what played out in Glasgow could happen on a night out in Dublin, Cork or Limerick or many other places in Ireland. It happened to Jill Meagher when she was murdered late at night by Adrian Bayley while walking home in Melbourne three years ago.

Killings such as that of Karen Buckley are thankfully rare, but many women do not feel safe on our streets at night, and elsewhere.

"Stranger danger" may evoke the greatest fear - but there is another chilling reality about the threats to women in Ireland.

Of the 206 women killed between 1996 and 2014, 63pc were killed in their own home.

The Elaine O'Hara case showed that the internet has added a whole new dimension of danger and threat, and just this week, Mark Nash was found guilty of the gruesome murders of two women, Sylvia Sheils and Mary Callinan, in March 1997.

We have almost come to accept as a sad fact of life that women cannot walk without fear along city streets after 9pm.

They have to gauge the element of risk, check if an area is properly lit, and that their phone is charged for emergencies.

Inside clubs and nightclubs, they are at risk of being sexually harassed - whether they are being taunted or groped.

The perception of danger is not misplaced, but why should that be, and why do we accept it as a sad fact of life in modern European cities?

Clíona Saidléar, executive director of the Rape Crisis Network of Ireland, says when a woman is attacked, attention tends to focus on her behaviour rather than that of the perpetrator.

Questions are inevitably asked about where she went, what she was wearing and how much she had drunk.

Saidléar says: "Every women has a long list of what they should do in terms of their own safety. Karen Buckley had a list.

"Women are trained to be mindful of their safety, but ultimately it won't protect them. We can't focus on the behaviour of women, because that only feeds the fear and sense of powerlessness. We need to focus on changing the behaviour of perpetrators.

"This is as much a men's issue as a women's issue. You need men to be engaged."

Those who are trying to tackle violence against women believe that we need to start by taking a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment and assault.

Harassment and assaults may not be as bad on the streets of Dublin as in many other cities, but it is extremely common in pubs and nightclubs, according Saidléar.

"If you were to do a poll of the next 10 women you meet, you would find that every one of them has had body parts grabbed at some.

"That means they have been assaulted in pubs and nightclubs. Women are felt up or touched or rubbed up against in an inappropriate sexual manner."

The road to violence by an attacker may start in a way that is considered relatively minor. They might make a rape joke and get a laugh. They might grope someone in a bar, and nobody responds. That gives them a signal that they can go further.

Jenny Dunne helped to set up Hollaback! Dublin, part of a global internet initiative, after she was appalled at the level of harassment on the streets of the capital.

Users post details of their personal experiences. Dunne talks of her own experience.

"I have been shouted at on the street and groped. I have been followed and threatened."

On the website, a woman named Eva tells how she was assaulted while travelling on a bus.

"I sat down and was nearly frightened to death by the man behind me. He poked his head between the seats and asked me to meet him when we got off the bus."

After she firmly told him "no", he tried to grab her breast.

"We want to show that women are entitled to be safe in public spaces," says Dunne. "If you live in a society where it's considered acceptable to shout abusive comments or grope someone on the street, that's sending a message that violence towards women is okay, and it can escalate into more serious assaults." Of course there is nothing new about violence against women. However, it is changing with technology.

The number of attacks has remained fairly consistent, but there has been a cultural shift.

There is less institutional abuse, but those who work in the field are increasingly dealing with cases linked with nightlife and online dating.

Saidléar says: "There is now a lethal cocktail of alcohol and sex and sexual violence.

"In the nightlife of the city, the situation has got worse. Our society has become increasingly pornographised and sexualised.

"There is a notion that if you are in a nightclub dressed up and it's Friday, you have pretty much already given consent to sex. The landscape we are in is that everybody is seen as sexually available.

"Today, what women are faced with is that their bodies are now regarded as public property."

Two years ago, amid some fanfare, Dublin signed up to become the first UN Women's Safe City in the developed world.

The city council promised at the time that the capital could become the "safest city in the world for women".

Some city authorities abroad are looking at improving lighting, policing and CCTV, and changing public transport in order to diminish the risk of attacks.

Although Dublin signed up as a UN Safe City, the project has stalled and few measures have actually been taken.

A number of countries - including Japan, Brazil and Thailand - already have women-only carriages on some trains.

Saidléar says measures can be taken in cities to improve safety, but she dislikes the idea of women-only carriages.

"There is a danger that you will corral women. What happens if there is not enough room on the women's carriage? If you have to go on another carriage, then you might be regarded as fair game."

There has been a predictable response in some quarters to the killing of Karen Buckley.

READ: MORE: 'There's a part of me that wants to disappear... it would be easier to give way to the black-and-white logic of misogyny...'

In another case in Worcester, magistrate Nigel Carbury referred to the Karen Buckley killing, saying: "It's very, very worrying how young girls put themselves in such very, very vulnerable positions."

Annie Hoey of USI says: "I think people are coming to realise preaching to women will not work. We need to have more education about what is acceptable. We need to teach men as well as women about violence."

The case of Karen Buckley, a young woman going out for a night with her friends, plays on our worst fears, according to Dr Vicky Conway, lecturer in criminal law at the University of Kent.

"This case was horrific - it's tragic when someone so young is killed, but sometimes our fears are misdirected.

"A woman, unfortunately, has a much greater chance of being killed by a partner she is trying to leave.

"Young female students are told not to walk home alone, and always carry keys, and carry this, that and the other, so that they can defend themselves.

READ MORE: When we text a taxi driver's name and number plate to family on a night out... are we casting an unfair shadow over the vast majority of men?

"They are not told they are much more likely to be raped by someone they have been kissing for a couple of weeks."

As well as making the streets safer, society also has to face the fact that the greatest threat may come not from strangers, but from those closer to home.

"If a woman is killed and it emerges that it is a husband or a partner, there tends to be an attitude that 'it is only a domestic'," says Caitriona Gleeson, programme manager of Safe Ireland, a national body tackling domestic violence. "Until we begin to shift that attitude, we will not be successful in tackling the problem of violence against women."

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