With renewed conversation around gender based violence in light of the murder of Ashling Murphy, Sophie Finn explores the calls made for systemic change.
The country stood still last week when news broke of the brutal murder of 23 year old teacher Ashling Murphy. The shocking event elicited an outpour of the sadness, fear and anger women feel every day.
November 25 marked the 22nd international day for the elimination of violence against women, however this endemic is far from being eliminated. Gender based violence is disturbingly common both inside and outside the home, an issue which has been compounded by Covid-19. In the last five years alone, Ireland has witnessed a series of harrowing attacks on women, not to mention the devastatingly long list of missing women. In 2018 Justine Valdez was abducted and murdered after getting off a bus. Urantsetseg Tserendorj was fatally stabbed on her way home from work in January 2021. 17 year old Alanna Quinn Idris was attacked and suffered horrendous injuries threatening her sight at the beginning of this year. Finally, in a case of cruel irony Ashling Murphy was murdered on Fiona’s way, a part of the Grand Canal in Tullamore named after Fiona Pender, a woman who has remained missing for over 25 years.
In the last five years alone, Ireland has witnessed a series of harrowing attacks on women, not to mention the devastatingly long list of missing women.
The unsettling reality is these attacks occurred in the course of everyday events. Getting off a bus, coming home from work or going for a run in broad daylight. From childhood, women are constantly warned to take precaution and be careful, however these attacks prove what was always known, women do not cause assault, murder and rape; attackers do. The harrowing truth is women can be attacked no matter what they do, it is men’s actions which must change. These sentiments can often elicit #Notallmen sentiment, and thankfully it is true that gender based violence is not carried out by all men, it is a small minority of men who attack, however it is all women who must live in fear of such men. To quote Fuad Alakbarov, “Not all men practice violence against women but all women live with the threat of male violence every single day. All over the Earth.”
Speaking to the University Observer Shirley Scott, Policy Manager for the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre (DRCC) commented that the attacks mentioned above are only scratching the surface of the gender based violence problem in Ireland. “To those four names you can add the names 240 other women have died violently between 1996-2022. Each of those deaths would have prompted a wave of concern about the safety of women. On hearing about Ashling Murphy’s murder over the past few days, feelings of anger and frustration have been flooding social media. Women sharing stories of uncomfortable moments and near-misses which could have turned into something more sinister. We are facing a problem that is at epidemic levels and to tackle it we need to have frank and open conversations about gendered violence. To see real and meaningful change, we each and every one of us, needs to engage in that discourse. We need to work towards a society where no one is in fear of violence because of their gender.
The ‘shadow pandemic’ refers to the fact that since the onset of Covid-19, gender based violence rates have heightened
The DRCC released a resonating statement regarding Ashling Murphy’s murder on January 13th. “In addition to the personal tragedy of Ashling’ s death, we are aware that throughout Ireland, people, and in particular many women, have been upset and made fearful anew because of the reality of gender-based violence in our society which primarily affects women. Such violence is most often perpetrated by people known to victims/ survivors but whether from someone they know or from a stranger, the reality is that women understand that they are particularly vulnerable simply by virtue of their gender.”
Statistics from Women’s Aid in 2020 indicate one in four women who have been in relationships has experienced abuse. Research from the European Union Fundamental Rights Agency in 2014 suggests 14 percent of women have been the subject of physical abuse by a partner since the age of 15. The ‘shadow pandemic’ refers to the fact that since the onset of Covid-19, gender based violence rates have heightened. Women’s Aid reported a 43 percent rise in contact of victims of domestic abuse between 2019 and 2020. Furthermore, there were 29,717 contacts and 30,841 disclosures of abuse of women and children in 2020, up 28 percent from 2019. The past year also saw disturbing reports of spiking via injection.
Intimate relationship abuse is another pressing issue facing women. Women’s Aid ran the Too Into You campaign from 25th of November to 10th December 2021, aiming to raise awareness of intimate relationship abuse against women aged 18-25. The 2020 One in Five report suggests 1 in 5 young women have suffered intimate relationship abuse, 1 in 6 have experienced coercive control and 3 of 5 have experienced intimate relationship abuse or know someone who has. Women’s Aid 2021 research indicates 4 of 5 young people believe those that experience intimate relationship abuse do so in silence without support.
Women’s Aid reported a 43 percent rise in contact of victims of domestic abuse between 2019 and 2020
Speaking about gender based violence and the heightened rates of domestic violence in correlation with Covid-19, Scott outlined the myriad of causes for the increase, “Measures such as stay-at-home, restrict your travel, all necessary to suppress the spread of Covid-19, increased the level of control perpetrators of domestic violence had over their victims while at the same time diminishing victim’s access to help and support. This ‘perfect storm’ triggered an unprecedented number of calls to domestic violence helplines for information in relation to various safety and protection orders or support around relocating to safer accommodation.” However Scott noted that during the most severe lockdowns contact rates lowered, however when restrictions eased and callers had more space they called.
Outlining that although people of any age can be the subject of sexual and intimate relationship abuse, Scott outlined young people can be particularly vulnerable. “Many young people do not report unhealthy relationships because they are afraid to tell anyone. Education has a key role to play in this respect. Within our school curriculum, we need to see more content that empowers young people to stay safe, by increasing their awareness and understanding of what constitutes a healthy relationship. We need to equip young people with skills to help them make their own decisions and to hold their position about what is right for them while respecting the rights of the other person to do the same. Supporting the development of healthy, respectful, and non-violent relationships has the potential to reduce the occurrence sexual abuse and intimate relationship abuse and prevent the harmful and long-lasting effects on young people and the communities they live in.” The DRCC BodyRight programme aims to prevent sexual violence through greater awareness of important sexual health and relationship issues.
ROSA, the Socialist Feminist Movement organised protests against gender based violence across Ireland for the international day for the elimination of violence against women last November, including a protest against sexual assault on campus in UCD. At the protest a UCD student and Rosa activist commented that by third year the majority of students in UCD and Irish university campuses, regardless of gender, experience sexual harassment.
Discussing the issue of sexual harassment and assault on campus, Scott said “Colleges have been doing a lot of work to address the issue of sexual harassment and assault to ensure a safer and more inclusive environment. The 2019 Framework for Consent in Higher Education Institutions: Safe, Respectful, Supportive and Positive – Ending Sexual Violence and Harassment in Irish Higher Education Institutions highlighted the need for data to be collected on the incidents of sexual harassment and assault across the higher education sector. The recent introduction of ‘Speak Out’ the new online tool which allows students and staff on college campuses to anonymously report sexual harassment and sexual violence now provides the means of recording those instances. And that data in turn can then be used to inform policy going forward. The provision of sexual consent training and the bystander intervention program are other key initiatives to ensuring a safe and respectful institutional environment.
“But we also need to be looking at the issue of consent earlier in the curriculum lifecycle. Children at primary and second level need to learn how to build the concepts of respect and consent into their young thinking and vocabulary. Providing basic information at a young age establishes the foundation on which more complex knowledge can be built up over time.”
The shocking murder of Ashling Murphy has resulted in an outcry for the end of violence against women. People lined the streets in vigils held across the country at 4pm Friday the 14th and throughout the following week, including one in UCD, with many expressing their deep sadness for Ashling and her family, as well as anger and indignation for the fear all women in Ireland face. This tragedy has undoubtedly raised the question, what must be done to make our society one where women can feel safe?
Attempts to focus on nationality or ethnicity of individual men or assertions that it is “not all men” only add to the problem, and detract attention from the true issue and attempts to find a real solution
The Department of Justice is currently compiling the third national strategy to tackle Domestic, Sexual and Gender based violence which was planned to be published by Christmas 2021. The Department has published such strategies since 2010. Following the murder of Ashling Murphy, the Irish Times reported Minister for Justice Helen McEntee pledged the strategy would have zero tolerance for violence against women and is due to be published in March.
Gender based violence is not a problem unique to Ireland, UN Women suggests one in three women over 15 have been subjected to gender based violence globally, most often by an intimate partner. The organisation also indicates the Covid-19 pandemic has worsened violence against women, particularly domestic violence. The UN has an array of policies on gender based violence and works with partners, governments and communities to end violence against women. In 2020, the UN Secretary-General urged world leaders to include preventing violence against women as part of the Covid-19 strategy due to the heightened rates in correlation with the pandemic. The Secretary-General’s campaign UNiTE by 2030 to End Violence against Women aims to eliminate all violence against women. The annual 16 days of activism against gender based violence took place between November 25 and December 10 2021 with the theme ‘Orange the World: End Violence against Women Now!’.
On an EU level the EU Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025 sets out the goals of the EU to end gender based violence, many of which were also emphasised in the foundational EU gender based violence Convention, the Istanbul Convention. However, although gender based violence is covered by Directives, there is no specific legal instrument to address the issue. There have been calls in the past year from MEPs to make gender based violence a crime under EU law. In September 2021 427 MEPs voted in favour of legislation addressing violence and discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation.
Before the vigil for Ashling Murphy at the Daíl Friday the 14th, the National Women’s Council (NWC) made a statement emphasising the “nationwide outpouring of grief and anger” must be a “watershed moment” in ending male violence against women. Director of the NWC, Orla O’Connor said “Women across Ireland have been sharing their stories of abuse and harassment, and how they curtail their lives so that they feel safer. Ultimately, we know there is no behaviour change women can make that will keep them safe from men’s violence. So we need to talk about what we can do.”
Discussing what must be done O’Connor stressed the need for political leadership “We need one Government department with responsibility for ending gender-based violence, with a Minister responsible for violence against women sitting at the Cabinet table”. O’Connor also emphasised the need for greater supports for women victim to gender based violence and easier reporting methods. O’Connor particularly emphasised prevention, “Ultimately though, we need to focus on prevention. Preventing men’s violence against women starts with creating a zero-tolerance culture towards that misogyny and sexism that creates the context in which gender-based violence occurs. This means, for example, funding and resources for programmes in second and third level education. It means policy change in our education system to ensure the casual sexism that girls and women experience is unacceptable. It means zero tolerance toward street harassment, and always toward harassment in the workplace.”
We are facing a problem that is at epidemic levels and to tackle it we need to have frank and open conversations about gendered violence.
President of Ireland Michael D. Higgins too referenced the “shock, grief, anger and upset” expressed by people of all generations in Ireland, and the undeniable need to end violence against women. “It is of crucial importance that we take this opportunity, as so many people have already done in the short time since Ashling’s death, to reflect on what needs to be done to eliminate violence against women in all its aspects from our society, and how that work can neither be postponed nor begin too early.
“May I suggest to all our people to reflect on all of our actions and attitudes – and indeed those we may have been leaving unchallenged amongst those whom we know – and do all we can to ensure that the society we live in is one where all of our citizens are free to live their lives, participate fully, in an atmosphere that is unencumbered by risks for their safety. Let us respond to this moment of Ashling’s death by committing to the creation of a kinder, more compassionate and empathetic society for all, one that will seek to eliminate all threats of violence against any of our citizens, and commit in particular to bringing an end, at home and abroad, to violence against women in any of its forms.”
The shocking murder of Ashling Murphy has brought the issue of gender based violence and femicide to the fore. Unfortunately the issue has plagued Ireland, as evident from the horrific figure referenced by Shirley Scott from the DRCC of 240 women having suffered violent deaths at the hands of men between 1996-2022. Ireland is not unique in the prevalence of gender based violence, which is a global issue. There are international, European and national policies intended to end violence, however rates are only accelerating, particularly since the onset of the pandemic. Responsibility and action must be taken. Attempts to focus on nationality or ethnicity of individual men or assertions that it is “not all men” only add to the problem, and detract attention from the true issue and attempts to find a real solution. Drastic change clearly must occur to truly eliminate violence against women.