Thursday 25 April 2019

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?

Graham Dwyer
Graham Dwyer
Mark Nash
Dearbhail McDonald

Dearbhail McDonald

Recent weeks have seen a harrowing roll call of Irish women whose lives have been claimed by violence, including sexual violence.

The shocking death in Scotland of Cork student Karen Buckley sent chills down the spines of women and parents everywhere as we were reminded that our very worst nightmares, the stuff of horror movies, is a reality - however remote - after all.

In recent months, the country has been convulsed by the trial and conviction of Graham Dwyer. Members of the public queued for up to six hours last Monday to see the architect jailed for life for the brutal BDSM murder of Elaine O'Hara.

Elaine was a vulnerable woman with psychiatric difficulties who was murdered in a lonely spot in the Dublin Mountains to fulfil Dwyer's grotesque 40th birthday goal - to stab a woman during sex.

Dwyer's sentence hearing overshadowed the same-day conviction and sentence of the already convicted killer Mark Nash, who was found guilty of the brutal murders of Sylvia Sheils and Mary Callinan in March 1997.

And it seemed to minimise the impact of the jailing of Oliver Kierans for the manslaughter of Patricia Kierans, his wife of 33 years, who died from a shotgun injury to the chest.

As these trials at the, admittedly, more extreme end of the violence spectrum gained mass publicity this week, the engine room of our criminal justice system - the District and Circuit Criminal courts - were churning through routine allegations of violence, rape, sexual assault and harassment against women and girls.

Under-the-radar court reports that now seem so run of the mill - they are anything but - that they rarely make headline news.

Cases like that of a convicted sex offender who harassed his neighbour by following her into her apartment and ordering her to give him her underwear; the actor appealing a conviction for assaulting his former partner; a man who had sex with a 15-year-old girl, and a student who sexually assaulted a woman after climbing into her bed while she was asleep.

These and other cases have reignited a long-standing, complex and multi-faceted debate about women's everyday experiences - and fears - of gender-based violence.

Do we, as women, overstate the perceived risks of sexual violence? When we text the taxi driver's name and number plate to friends or family as a norm on a night out and cross the street when we hear footsteps behind us, are we casting an unfair shadow over the vast majority of men who respect us?

Sexual violence is a broad spectrum that captures everything from casual misogyny to murder. It is the sexist cat calling in the streets to so-called "minor" sexual assaults such as groping, to unwanted sexual advances in public spaces and on public transport, to intimate partner violence, stranger danger as well as death.

The everyday apprehension or fear that many women - myself included - experience, is not just in our heads: almost one in three women in Europe say that they have experienced physical or sexual violence since the age of 15 by a partner or non-partner.

According to last year's Fundamental Rights ­Agency (FRA) Survey on Violence Against Women, more women in Ireland perceived the frequency of violence against women to be "very common" when compared to the EU average, some 33pc compared with 27pc.

The landmark Sexual Assault and Violence Survey in Ireland (SAVI), which is crying out for a reprisal, revealed shocking levels of sexual violence against both men and women Irish society.

One in five women reported experiencing contact sexual assault as adults, with 6.1pc of women experiencing unwanted penetrative sex - in other words, rape.

That is more than 76,000 women raped during their adulthood, adding to the largely silent trauma of the 30pc of women who reported experiencing sexual abuse during their childhoods.

Followed, groped, threatened - why women demand better  

The widespread prevalence of such gender-based violence stands in stark contrast to the comparative dearth of cases that actually find their way through the criminal justice system, itself a major deterrent despite quite healthy conviction and sentence rates once they do.

Historically, men have had little or no social or legal sanctions for committing acts of violence against women.

They still don't.

And until men and women work together to combat this ever-present epidemic, our women and girls will continue to act from a place of caution and fear.

'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...' 

Dearbhail McDonald is Irish Independent Legal Editor

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