Violence against women, how society fuels it and what we can do about it

I wrote this post a couple of months back, about a friend.  Someone to whom I owe more than I could put into words here.  The reaction I received was astounding, heartening and saddening all at once.  Too often, we hear tales of domestic violence, abuse, murder in the media, and they’re just that. Stories. I wanted this post to be about a real person. Not just a photo in the paper, to be forgotten next week. I wanted it to remember someone I knew for a small time, but who made a big impact. Someone who had a family and friends, people who cared about her, and were devastated at her loss. For the sake of sensitivity, however I’ve changed some details and disabled comments (something I never do) so as to make her less personally identifiable. 

I’ve mentioned her before in this blog, but she was a colleague and a friend. Compassionate and clever, she had studied hard and was looking forward to a career helping others. I can’t do justice to her personality here, but she was the type of person you’d want by your side in a time of crisis. Gentle and softly spoken, she projected an air of quiet confidence and empathy that you knew would make her an excellent carer. She was weeks away from her formal graduation when she was murdered by her partner, seven years ago this month. She was in her early 20s.

I’d met her partner a handful of times. It had struck me what a strange combination they were. I’d heard her justifying what seemed to me like his bad behaviour more than once, and it had arisen in conversation among friends. In personality, he appeared her very opposite – everything she wasn’t. She didn’t speak much about him, but we sensed an ill-ease and a tendency to placate. We saw less of her socially. In hindsight, the warning signs were there.

But we never expected things to end up like they did.

Seven years on, I still feel angry. So angry with him, for doing what he did, to her family and friends. For thinking he could prevent her from living the life she wanted. I feel sad. Because undoubtedly, the world lost a truly wonderful person – someone who would undoubtedly  make the world a better place, which is all she wanted to do. (Though I’d argue that in her short time, she did just that.)

And I feel guilty, even now. For not doing more. Even though we weren’t particularly close, it had occurred to me that she might have been in an unhappy relationship. I didn’t make the effort I could have. To stay in touch. To talk. It happens all the time, though. People meet people; relationships begin. Things change. Who, in their right minds, could ever have contemplated the outcome?

Violence towards women is in the news every day. Every single day.

Recent statistics, particular pertaining to Ireland, are scarce, but research indicates that one in five women in Ireland, who have been in a relationship, have been abused by either a current or former partner. One in five. Picture yourself, with four of your friends. Statistically, that’s one of you. Since 1996,  190 women have been murdered in Ireland, and of these,  116 women were killed in their own homes. In those resolved cases, over half were murdered by a partner. According the WHO, most violence globally  against women is perpetrated by an intimate male partner, and women who have been physically or sexually abused have higher rates of mental ill-health, unintended pregnancies, abortions and miscarriages than non-abused women. One in five women will be a victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime.

So many things contribute to the culture of violence against women. Far more than I could squeeze into one blog post, but allow me to touch on some of them below.

  • Victim-blaming. It’s amazing how often we hear about the amount of alcohol that might have been consumed by the victim, how well she knew her attacker, what she might have been wearing. The ONLY person that bears responsibility for a violent attack is the attacker. No-one else. Ever. This can’t be said often enough.
  • Focus on the victim – especially if the victim is physically attractive. Reeva Steenkamp, anyone? We need start focusing on the perpetrators of crimes, and condemning their despicable actions, in the strongest possible way.
  • Public forgiveness of male instigators – Stan Collymore, Chris Brown are two prize examples. How these two have wormed their way back into public affection is beyond me, but there they are, being rewarded with media roles and record company support. As what they did can be forgotten, like it had only temporary consequences. It didn’t.
  • Jokes about domestic violence. “You can beat your wife, but you can’t beat the craic” – really? Language and discourse is so very important. Jokes about domestic violence are everywhere, yet many of us are nervous about calling them out, for fear of being labelled dry. I can’t take a joke? Yeah, cos getting your face smashed in is priceless. Women partake in this humour too. You need to stop and think. It’s not funny.
  • Social media responsibility – or lack of: Sites like Facebook deem it acceptable to allow pages glorifying and joking about domestic violence, as detailed here (warning – graphic images) under the guise of freedom of speech. Incidentally, Facebook also recently removed Jane Ruffino’s excellent post about domestic violence, stating that it contravened their terms of service. Go figure. An excellent campaign instigated by Women, Action & the Media is currently pointing out to advertisers that their ads are appearing on such pages and calling on them to pull ads until Facebook revises its policies and guidelines. And it’s working. There is such a thing as bad publicity, it seems.
  • Consequences. Sentencing for sexual crimes in Ireland is inconsistent at best. with some worrying trends emerging in terms of inexplicably lenient sentencing for perpetrators. There have been no fewer than three cases in the last few months of attackers escaping prison sentences if they paid a financial penalty. See HERE, HERE and HERE for examples. I can’t articulate how angry I am about this, and about the message it sends to both attackers and victims. Essentially, it’s putting a price on women’s safety. The legal position, where the onus of proof is on the victim, and they, not the perpetrator are cross-examined, is a deterrent to prosecuting perpetrators, and essentially ends up re-traumatising the victim. Fewer than 5% of sex attackers in Ireland are convicted.

Like many other injustices, every single one of us has the power to make change. How?

  • By calling out unacceptable behaviour, be that a tasteless joke, or a sexist remark or misogynistic comment. Language is so powerful. Domestic violence jokes just aren’t acceptable. And let’s face it, there are plenty other things to laugh about.
  • By looking out for your friends. If you suspect something’s not right, keep an eye. You don’t need to interfere, but let her know you’re there. Do not judge. You might lose patience with someone who’s constantly justifying bad behaviour, but you never know when she might need a friend who won’t judge her. Just be there, and be ready to listen.
  • By not being afraid to intervene and call the police when you hear your neighbour screaming because her partner is beating her. It IS your businesss.
  • Noting that psychological abuse can also be extremely damaging, and can happen along with, or without physical violence. It erodes self-esteem and the scars, just because they’re internal, are no less deep. It’s abuse, and it’s just as appalling.

It’s also important to note that violence against men, perpetrated by women or other men, is an issue that is very real, and is rarely ever acknowledged or addressed with any degree of seriousness. It should be. And no-one should feel unsafe in a relationship.

What happened taught me two very valuable lessons. Look out for your friends, and look out for yourself. I try to look out for my friends. I often fail dismally, but I’m more aware. I fervently hope that if any of them ever felt they needed to talk, they know they could turn to me. I really, really hope so. And when I found myself in a situation a while back that saw a partner I adored starting to become both obsessive and possessive – checking my messages, monitoring my online activity, questioning me about who I was talking to and spending time with, I knew, despite how strongly I felt about him that I had to get out. I’m not suggesting it would have had a similar outcome, nor that he was capable of being violent, but his behaviour scared me and my instinct screamed at me to leave. Maybe I panicked, but I was scared. I caught a glimpse of the life that potentially lay ahead, and I fled.

Violence against women does not discriminate. It can happen to any of us, regardless of age, wealth, class, outlook. My friend was beaten and murdered in her own home, where she should have been safe. Since she died, over 70 other women have been murdered in Ireland – roughly half of those at the hands of their partners.

If you’re reading this, and you need help, it’s there. People care. Check out Women’s Aid, or the Rape Crisis Centre, and know that it doesn’t have to be like this. If you’re reading this and don’t need help, be vigilant. And know that even you, through your words and actions can make an impact, good or bad.

A response to a response to a response on marriage equality

You may remember I wrote a response  in reply to Breda O’Brien’s piece on marriage equality a few weeks back.

My piece sparked a discussion on twitter with David, an old friend of mine, and a far greater thinker than I could ever hope to be. While himself an endorser of marriage equality, David wondered, with sound reason whether there were a better way of making the argument Breda was trying to make, and indeed, if there were any merit to the arguments being made against marriage equality.

What David says:

“I’m curious whether there is a distinctively conservative, non-question-begging argument against marriage equality that should trouble those of us who endorse marriage equality. It might seem odd that I’d be interested in that question. If I think that we ought to have marriage equality, shouldn’t I be happy that opponents of marriage equality use such terrible arguments?

Here is my answer to that question. I doubt that many people believe that the reason we ought to prohibit same-sex marriage is the arbitrary dictate of a god (though I’m sure some do). And I think many people, even if they have reactions of disgust to homosexual sex, do not think that their reaction of disgust is a good reason to prohibit same-sex marriage (though again, I’m sure some do). But many of those people, I suspect, still think there’s a good underlying reason to prohibit same-sex marriage, even if they can’t quite express that reason.

If that’s right, then if we proponents of marriage equality only respond to the terrible arguments that Breda O’Brien illustrates, our responses might still leave many people uncomfortable. Those people might have the lingering feeling that there was some truth in those arguments, terrible as they were, and that our objections to the arguments missed that kernel of truth. If, however, the argument against marriage equality is set out at its strongest, I hope those lingering feelings can be lessened, and that people can more wholeheartedly embrace marriage equality.

At the very least, we will more clearly understand what separates us from our opponents. That doesn’t mean I think it’s any less important to respond to Breda O’Brien’s, and others’, terrible arguments; I think it’s really important to do that. But I think we ought to undertake, too, this different task.”

David teases out the arguments in great detail here and here , and I’d strongly recommend you have a read.

You’ll find David at @_d_o_b_ on twitter.

Mental Health, Mixed Messages and the Green Ribbon

It’s May, a new summer season is upon us (apparently), and around us a new conversation is finding its feet. Discussion of mental health issues and suicide, in particular, has never been more prominent than in recent times, yet rarely has the conversation been so intense and the messages been more mixed.

We’ve had weeks of robust debate around abortion, where the term ‘suicide’ has been bandied around frequently, carelessly. Public discussion is hugely important in shaping perceptions of mental health, and regardless of the abortion issue, suggestions of large teams of professionals having to ‘verify’ the state of mind of a suicidal pregnant woman arguably sent a subtle, but potentially very damaging message.

We’ve witnessed also the late Donal Walsh’s impassioned campaign against suicide. At 16, Donal knew he was dying, and spoke eloquently of his anger that some of his peers were choosing to end their lives, when he so badly wanted to live. There is little doubt that Donal’s brave handling of his illness earned him respect and admiration. While he may not have fully acknowledged the mindset that drives someone to take their own life, nevertheless if his sentiment, ‘suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem’ resonated with just one young person and made them think twice, then it hit the mark.

Another to add his voice to the discussion has been musician Niall Breslin, who’s spoken candidly about the crippling panic attacks he suffered for years. The significance of someone like Bressie – likeable and popular among the younger, more vulnerable demographic – talking openly  about his own mental health simply cannot be underestimated.  He is also an active campaigner who insists that suicide should just not be an option; it “should not even be part of the conversation”.  Instead, he focuses on the practical, and is adamant that young people need to know exactly where to turn. While there are many options, he says, quite correctly that they are not always clear or obvious, and they need to be so. Bressie has also highlighted the negative effects of excessive alcohol consumption – something that for various reasons is routinely ignored in mental health discussions but undoubtedly contributes in no small way to the problem.

What’s great about Bressie’s input is not just the way he normalises mental health, but his reassurance that mental ill-health is treatable, and that we have the power to make positive changes. Too often these conversations focus on negative outcomes like suicide, but it’s vital to show that frequently outcomes are positive, people do recover and that we can and should take steps to mind our minds like we do our bodies.

Last Saturday, the spectacularly poignant Pieta House Darkness into Light walk saw 40,000 people in parks nationwide rising before dawn, donning yellow t-shirts and walking together towards the sunrise in a powerful show of solidarity, remembrance, and hope. The emotion was palpable – unsurprising considering that pretty much every participant had in some way been touched by suicide. All were walking to send a powerful message that change is needed, and quickly.

May is Green Ribbon month. Like pink ribbons are synonymous with breast cancer, the green ribbon is an international symbol – of challenging the stigma of mental health problems. See Change, the National Stigma Reduction Partnership has launched a month-long campaign to get people talking openly.

We are however, already doing that, and often the advice given to those who are struggling is to “talk”. What we don’t acknowledge is that often, starting conversations is the hardest part, and that many of us simply don’t know how. Even harder is knowing how to listen, without necessarily offering solutions which may not be helpful. The Green Ribbon campaign offers helpful, practical tips. Simple things. Ask someone how they are. Don’t feel the need to jump in with a solution – just listen. Be patient. Sometimes, tiny things like a text message make the biggest difference.

Above all, we must realise that collectively we all have responsibility. An act of kindness costs nothing, while simply looking out for those around you can be priceless. This is the season of hope. Let’s make it a mission to spread some light this May. And get talking.

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Published on Newstalk.ie on Friday 17th May 2013