Rule number one for women on how to avoid being attacked, raped or murdered: never leave home. Not to work, not to exercise, not to shop and definitely not to socialise. Unfortunately, domestic violence means staying indoors won’t guarantee absolute safety, but it does offer a certain level of protection.
A radical solution to gender-based violence, you might think, and you’d be right. This is hardly a desirable state of affairs – a society in which women lock themselves away, fearful of doing something as healthy as going for a daytime run.
Already this week, following Ashling Murphy’s murder while jogging on a canal path in Tullamore, Co Offaly, other women have thought twice about taking their usual exercise. We all know not every man is an aggressor – but the problem for women is any man could be.
Ashling took no chances: she was in a public place in daylight. Yet she’s dead.
We hear a great deal about violence against women as something random – attributable to bad luck, a wrong-place-wrong-time situation. But there’s nothing random about the gender against whom it is directed, and nothing random about who is perpetrating it. A pattern of violence by men against women is unmistakeable, it has been happening for ever. Not least because society continues to tolerate it.
To shrug off an attack as random, a haphazard event, is to pave the way for another one. Then another. And so the cycle continues.
We know which actions need to be taken, but remain unforgivably slow to adopt them. Violence against women must be tackled by the legal system, with meaningful deterrents including the courts playing a stronger role in sentencing.
A culture shift is also essential, beginning in schools but not confined to them, to push back against root causes of this violence. Loud and clear, the message needs to be communicated that disrespectful attitudes to girls and women are not tolerated. Let’s name it for what it is: not banter or boyish high spirits but abuse, and liable to lead to more serious incidents.
That message needs to be shared among male peer groups where locker-room culture can provide a breeding ground for misogyny – where rape jokes aren’t challenged, where pornography is regarded as acceptable, where women are objectified.
Online violence against women is another factor. Female journalists, politicians and activists are singled out on Twitter and other platforms for highly personal abuse, usually delivered anonymously via avatars.
Social media companies must be forced by the body politic to take responsibility for the bullying and defamation they facilitate.
Few women in Ireland have managed to avoid some experience of gender-based violence. It might be verbal or physical, mild or lethal. We have grown up with it – it has been forced on us as our norm. No wonder women are angry. Decent men are angry, too, but they need to channel that emotion by becoming part of the solution.
Meanwhile, we women must continue to regulate our behaviour: staying alert, looking over our shoulders, being cautious about what we wear, choosing the best-lit side of the street, keeping our mobile phones and keys handy, letting friends and family know where we are, walking or running without headphones – all the techniques we use as a matter
Changed working arrangements mean many people are spending more of their time at home, and consequently it’s important to have access to the outside world. Medical advice urges exercise and fresh air, but women frequently don’t feel confident outdoors. Catcalls while jogging, as Senator Lynn Boylan told RTÉ’s Your Politics podcast yesterday, is the least of it.
There are tools that help, such as widespread use of CCTV, and these should be employed. While cameras don’t prevent attacks entirely, they can act as a deterrent and certainly lead to prosecutions. More than sticking-plaster solutions, however, we need policies and legislation.
Orla O’Connor, director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI), warns that violence against women is still not taken seriously enough, and sees a lack of top-down commitment to ending it: “We need to acknowledge the scale of the problem.” Ms O’Connor says 2022 is a critical year for the Government to show leadership. In the spring, the Government’s initiative will be launched, The Third National Strategy on Domestic, Sexual and Gender-Based Violence.
Ms O’Connor told the Irish Independent: “It’s really important for this strategy to make it very clear who is responsible in our Government for ending violence against women – which minister and which department – because right now the division of policy, legislation and services among a variety of departments and agencies is just leading to a completely confused approach.”
She identified insufficient refuge spaces for victims of domestic abuse as a limit on the options of women at risk and urged increased emphasis by the courts on the perpetrators “from barring orders for domestic abuse all the way through to stiffer sentencing for crimes”.
She also said the culture in which boys were raised should be examined.
“This is not saying that all men are abusers, but it’s men who are doing this; they are the perpetrators. So there needs to be a much greater focus on perpetrators instead of these messages about what women can do to keep themselves safe.”
On Twitter, Dr Niamh NicGhabhann, a senior lecturer at the University of Limerick, yesterday suggested drawing on the experience of other campaigns devised to prevent loss of life, such as road safety, where quality advertising and road signage helped to build social awareness. She wrote: “Should we try to do similar? Could we have an ad campaign that would actually model certain responses for people – like “if you hear your friend say things like this, here are some things you could say or do”. Or make the research into the causal factors for VAM (violence against women) more apparent and widely known.” Excellent suggestions.
Today, a candlelit vigil will be held between 4pm and 5pm outside the Dáil, organised by the NWCI for Ashling Murphy (23), the teacher whose murder has intensified this essential conversation. In the era of Covid, not everyone can attend, so numbers will be symbolic. But wherever we are at 4.30pm, we can all light a candle and join in a minute’s silence for a beautiful life snuffed out.
How many more broken limbs and stolen lives before action is taken?