We all have a part to play in reducing violence against women
Northern Irish MPs and MLAs gathered outside Stormont yesterday to remember Ashling Murphy.
Ms Murphy was murdered last week in Tullamore, Co Offaly. The teacher’s death, the result of a senseless attack while she was out for an afternoon jog, has resulted in widespread grief, anger and frustration.
Vigils have taken place in the Republic of Ireland, in Northern Ireland, and further afield. The murder has led to broad discussions about how to create a society where women are safer.
Violence against women and girls is a major problem in Northern Ireland. This is part of the reason why the murder of Ms Murphy – which took place in the Republic of Ireland – has struck such a chord here.
Between October 2020 and September 2021, seven women were murdered in NI. Overall, since the beginning of the pandemic and the introduction of social distancing, eleven women have lost their lives.
During 2020-2021, the PSNI responded to 31,196 domestic abuse incidents (note, however, that 31% of victims of domestic abuse crimes are male; around 86% of offenders are male and 13% female). There were also 3,335 sexual offences in the same period.
Figures released late last year revealed that Northern Ireland is the most dangerous place in Europe to be a woman. We have, per capita, the highest number of domestic murders – 0.43 killings per 100,000 people, a rate matched only by Romania, and which is three times higher than the equivalent figure in England and Wales.
Domestic abuse and violence is, of course, only part of the story. Violence against women can take place outside the home. It can involve so-called “random” attacks, like the one inflicted on Ms Murphy.
Not All Men?
Since the murder of Ms Murphy, the public conversation about how to make women and girls safer has inevitably discussed the role of men.
Men are far more likely to be the perpetrator of a woman’s murder than other women are, but the public conversation does not begin and end there. It asks what men – all men – can do to change culture, and to challenge poor behaviours or attitudes from family, friends or other men in general.
A common retort to this is to say that not all men are guilty of violent or abusive behaviour. But saying “not all men” misses the point. Of course not all men are guilty of violence or abuse, and only a tiny percentage of men will ever commit a murder.
However, violence – and, in particular, the level of violence committed by men against women – is a social problem. It is something we can all do something about, however small. All men should be concerned about the fact that women aren’t as safe as they should be.
The facts are startling. Murder is the extreme end of violence and abuse and, while it may not be commonplace, it still happens. But there is a whole spectrum of experience that is less extreme but nonetheless still shocking.
In 2020, Runner’s World published research into what going out for a jog is like for women in the UK. 46% say they are harassed at least some of the time (compared with 9% of men). 27% say they have been followed by a person in a vehicle, on a bicycle or on foot. 13% say they have been propositioned (a euphemism, if ever there was one). 5% have been groped. 3% have been flashed.
And that’s just what happens when jogging - which, of course, is what Ms Murphy was doing when she was attacked.
So, yeah, not all men – but there is much more that we can all do to change society for the better. It’s not enough to tell women to look after themselves better. Indeed, recommendations along those lines are frequently quite mad: don’t go out after dark, don’t go anywhere alone and, of course, wear more modest clothes.
Women don’t go running in high heels and a cocktail dress (and, even if they did, so what?). If the statistics from Runner’s World don’t convince you that different wardrobe choices won’t reduce levels of violence, maybe nothing will.
Stay home after dark, never be alone – this is advice that sounds like it’s aimed at a pre-teen child, not an adult. If those are your plans for improving women’s experiences then you have very low expectations for society.
But change is possible. For instance, Northern Ireland has the highest rates of domestic murders of women in Europe. That means everywhere else (apart from Romania, whose figures are the same as NI) has lower rates - which means lower rates of violence can be achieved.
Change is possible, and is more likely when everyone is more open about this problem, and more willing to discuss attitudes both good and bad, willing to discuss toxicity, and talk about basic ideas like respect for others, respect for their autonomy and respect for their personhood. That is a role that all men can play.
Last year, PC Wayne Couzens, a serving Metropolitan Police officer, murdered Sarah Everard after kidnapping her in Clapham, South London, while she was walking home alone.
Mr Couzens was nicknamed The Rapist by colleagues as long as ten years ago. Co-workers (Mr Couzens then worked at the Civil Nuclear Constabulary, not the Met) gave him this name because of how uncomfortable he made some female colleagues feel.
While at the Met, he was part of at least one WhatsApp group that swapped misogynistic and racist messages. Mr Couzens was in 2015 linked to allegations of indecent exposure. The Independent Office for Police Conduct is investigating whether these complaints were properly investigated by Kent Police (where the alleged indecent exposures took place).
It is impossible to know how much of Mr Couzens behaviours were ever challenged. What is certain, however, is that he was able to move between different positions of responsibility seemingly without issue.
These circumstances raise several questions for society. Do we discuss toxic behaviour enough? Do we discuss it in a constructive way? Do we discuss healthy, positive behaviour enough? Or do we too frequently lower our heads and avoid any awkwardness when faced with bad attitudes, or behaviour that should be unacceptable?
Last Monday, the Executive issued a public consultation calling for views “in relation to the development of the Strategy to Tackle Violence Against Women and Girls”.
This consultation will feed into two different governmental strategies: a Domestic and Sexual Abuse Strategy, led jointly by the Department of Health and the Department of Justice; and an Equally Safe Strategy (a Strategy to tackle Violence Against Women and Girls) led by the Executive Office.
It is also expected that the Gender Equality Strategy will assist in the aims of these strategies which are, according to the First Minister and deputy First Minister in their foreword to the call for views: “The Strategy to tackle Violence Against Women and Girls; the Equally Safe Strategy will identify actions to tackle violent and abusive behaviour directed at women and girls precisely because they are women and girls. This includes crimes and unwanted behaviour in the physical and online world.
“The behaviour, and the attitudes that allow it stem from deep rooted inequality. We want a society in which all are equally safe; where everyone is respected and can reach their full potential. This has never been more important with already existing inequalities in our society made worse over the last two years by the impact of COVID-19.
“This is a challenge we can all play our part in meeting, in our private and public lives. There is something that everyone can do; government, community and voluntary groups, education and health services and employers as well as the criminal justice system.”
The Executive’s consultation paper notes that they are particularly keen to hear from a number of groups, including:
- those with lived experience. That includes those directly affected by domestic and sexual abuse or other kinds of violence, as well as their friends, family and colleagues
- those from different groups and communities, including victims from LGBTQIA+ and minority ethnic communities and those with a disability
- organisations that provide support to victims (including victims of violence against women and girls)
- organisations that provide support to children and young people
- frontline professionals, such as those working in health and social care, education, housing and the criminal justice system
The consultation opened on January 10 and closes on March 7. Further information is available here.
Northern Ireland can and should do better. Hopefully this consultation is the start.
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