Gender-Based Violence: Starting, Supporting and Sustaining the Conversation
sibeal devilly
11th of March 2022

Some names have been changed to respect respondents’ requests for anonymity.

 

“I think Ashling Murphy has brought out the best and worst in people.” (Sophie, 25)

The month’s mind of Ashling’s tragic death has passed, however, the emotional fallout from the murder of the 23 year old primary school teacher will likely stay with us a lot longer. Since her death, there have been two more notable instances of assault by men against women across public spaces in Ireland. All the while, new developments emerge in the policy arena around how to prevent gender-based violence (GBV) and support victims. Now more than ever, it feels apt to consider the fraught response to this case and the lasting impression it may leave.  As our landscape for change becomes more and more influenced by the media, and in particular, social media, the impact for conversation is significant. While the wave of advocacy in response to this case is welcome, when the issue is as sensitive as GBV, how we talk to each other matters even more. Important questions arise, questions that have an array of potential answers. Each has the power to inspire or isolate, engage or exclude. The legacy of Ashling Murphy’s murder lies not only in its grievous circumstances, but in the context of her death and the discussion it must spark and sustain. Fixed in an Irish and global history of gender inequality, whether this case proves pivotal for progress may depend on how consciously we choose to respond in the modern age.  To capture the ongoing conversation, I attempted to engage, speak and most importantly, listen to young men and women in Ireland, advocates and organisations working in this field. The goal was to explore the consequences of how we communicate in 2022, and how this dialogue can be mobilised to ensure inclusive, effective change going forward. In doing so, a door has been opened into the minds of young people and experts. Behind this door lies a range of thoughts and feelings, beliefs and insights into a perennially controversial issue; men’s violence against women. 

You are invited to step in. 

 

“My initial reaction was kind of like, oh no, not again” (Serena, 22)

 

“[there was] disbelief in the beginning… then I kinda caught myself and said, why don’t I believe this? This isn’t new?” (Deirdre, 24)

 

“We’ve heard this so much over the last two years” (Matthew, 22)

 

These initial impressions of Ashling’s death are chilling. As respondents attempted to encapsulate something “so, so tragic and so, so sad”, there was an underlying current of grim tolerance throughout these interviews. A sense that while shocking, there is little reason to be surprised. 

 

“244 women since 1996. We’ll see another Ashling Murphy, Sarah Everard… the problem isn’t going to go away.” (Deirdre, 24)

 

Each reaction, though striking, was immediate. As interviewees increasingly began to echo each other, one simple question remained: why? Why did this case make such an impact if this happens so frequently? Why, without knowledge of motive nor means, were we so quick to link a stranger assault to the wider issue of GBV? Why, and why now?  Everyone interviewed acknowledged this case as a tragedy and several drew reference to previous tragedies, such as the murder of Urantsetseg Tserendorj last January in the IFSC. However, the impact Ashling Murphy has had is marked, spurring unusually charged sentiment throughout Irish media and society.  Ashling was painted the perfect victim. Young, Irish, innocent, out for a run in broad daylight. “I think the reaction from everyone has been very emotional, which is understandable… we’re 23, we’re students, we graduated as a student last year, I have a friend who’s a teacher… everyone knows an Ashling Murphy, even if you didn’t know her” (Sarah, 23). Serena emphasised the way Ashling was depicted in the media, along with the uniqueness of her death; “I think the way Ashling Murphy’s case was worded definitely had an impact on the way people view it and I know this is terrible to say, but you hear about domestic violence cases more so than murders in Ireland so it’s going to catch people’s attention because it’s quite an extreme case.” Emotions were high and a surge of activism ensued. Social media was alight with six poignant words: She Was Going For A Run. Women shared their own stories of safety, their experiences of assault. Keys between fingers and catcalls on streets. Organisations continued to campaign for change. We were igniting a long-overdue, wider dialogue around gender-based violence. Yet, there were early indications that this advocacy could divide us further.  Making the links between everyday acts of misogyny and an isolated, acute incident like this one is a difficult task. In a media landscape that is increasingly polarised, nuance can get lost in the pressure to take a stance, defend an opinion, and allocate blame for such an incomprehensible crime. This impact is observed most fervently in the #NotAllMen rhetoric that rears its head regularly during these discussions:

 

“Why is it that when a woman is attacked, all men are implicated in somehow being responsible for the crime, but when a woman attacks a man, no such thing happens to women… when men are attacked by men, we only implicate the individual in this case. Men as a whole aren’t implicated. Why the double standard?” (Miguel, 27)

“There are certain words that trigger men and kind of the general population, like feminism, misogyny, patriarchy, you know, toxic masculinity… I also think there’s a huge amount of really complex language being used which completely alienates a very big proportion of society who maybe aren’t as articulate or don’t want to read several paragraphs on ‘why men are bad’”

“There’s a responsibility that does need to be taken by men – that is a huge burden on someone, a huge thing to take on, to say, well my gender keeps killing people, my gender keeps catcalling people in the street, but I’ve never done it – what can I do about it?” (Sophie, 25)

 

Noeline Blackwell, CEO of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, assessed the connection between the two. While this “stands alone as a tragedy, there is a parallel…” The response to this case was less about the detailed circumstances of this murder, and more to do with the memories it aroused. 

 

“My sense is it’s not that Ashling Murphy’s death has caused women to be afraid, it has reminded them to be afraid… more and more people started to realise this was the ultimate nightmare but it wasn’t the only nightmare…a lot of people know that abuse doesn’t normally start with murder, it starts with something [small], the abuser gets away with that and so on and so forth until they hit the boundaries…”

“This is a remembrance by women that they are right to be afraid.”

 

Merely by nature of Ashling being a woman, and her perpetrator a man, this case forced us to think about what can happen to women, what does happen to women, at a disproportionate rate in our society. We were forced to consider the fact that she was “doing all the right things”, and still fell victim to an attack. This consideration alone is indicative of injustice. We rarely apply these expectations to male victims in similar circumstances, which in itself tells us that while we don’t know exactly what happened, we make assumptions based on a history of entrenched gender inequality. 

 

“I suppose because we hear about [misogyny] so much, we immediately assume certain kind of factors, when obviously as the story unfolds we get more details” (Matthew, 22)

 

Deirdre reminds us that in trying to assess how and why Ashling died,“you can’t draw a straight line from one to the other, it’s a spider’s web.” It could have been random, psychotic, as likely to happen if it had been a man going for a run. But it also could have happened because Ashling was physically weaker, because there are patriarchal, implicit biases that rendered her an easy target, microaggressions that have an array of consequences; whether that’s upholding traditional, religious values, perpetuating stereotypes, normalising violent behaviours, or making it harder for men to access mental health support. We “jump to the conclusion that this [happened] because she was a woman” because we have no choice but to consider the likelihood that that could be true. We don’t have the privilege of ignoring gender-based factors that could have contributed to this case, like we do with other murders. We don’t know why this happened, which means we can’t really rule any motive or influence out. 

 

“It’s not a nice outcome that her death has sparked this kind of conflict between people.” (Serena, 22)

 

That being said, cultivating constructive conversation around these complex ideas is easier said than done, especially through media platforms. The way we talk about this specific case in the wider context of GBV can still have adverse impacts. Even seemingly positive campaigning can swiftly turn sour. Respondents highlighted how our reaction could affect other victims of GBV, victims who aren’t in as ‘worthy positions’. Those who are wearing the wrong thing, who are out at the wrong time, who are sex workers or domestically abused. The way Ashling’s death was sketched implied “that she didn’t deserve this to happen”, as though others conceivably do. 

 

“Sometimes with domestic assault or cases of rape… they might say [the victim] was walking down a dark alleyway or you know, a young girl had sexual intercourse with her uncle instead of saying, you know, an uncle raped his niece.” (Serena, 22)

 

Sarah regarded our quick reactions as dangerous in this context; “maybe there’s merit in attention being drawn to [gender based violence] here, but I think it hurts those conversations more.”

 

“Saying there’s a continuum of male behaviour that leads to murder, I think that pushes men away from wanting to talk about misogyny, because you’re basically saying I could end up there… and if I’m not addressing that I’m okay with murder, which is not the case… I don’t think that’s a good tactic.”

 

She hoped for more practical discussions around the prevention of stranger assaults specifically and making space for these strategies to be heard. She admitted that voicing this opinion was daunting for her, especially online; “if it is a conversation, don’t use her death to have it – then I can’t disagree with you.” It’s true that at times like this, inaccuracies can be perpetuated by the media that spark temporary fear rather than long term reform. Ryan Hart, an advocate against domestic violence whose father abused and eventually killed Ryan’s mother and sister in a murder-suicide, informed me that 11% of women are killed by strangers in the UK, while 89% are killed by someone they know.  “One thing that really annoyed us about our [case] is that we didn’t know we were victims… domestic violence and homicide was portrayed as one off – out of nowhere.” “That’s why we didn’t know what was going on… [nobody thinks their] father is someone who is going to hurt them…very little attention is paid to true risk areas for women. If the media is not doing a good job at portraying the truth about what is going on, you have a distorted viewpoint [about the] red flags of domestic homicide… I’d like to see the same amount of attention when people are killed by people they know at home.” Noeline explained how the privacy and complicated nature of domestic violence cases mean they’re less likely to be reported on, despite being more prevalent; “one of the attributes of this [case] is its absolute simplicity.” Matthew echoed her thoughts;

 

“there’s a [need] for the media to start [making this issue] omnipresent until a point that it is eradicated… There are so many issues in Ireland in the last few years that become like Ashling Murphy, like ok, it’s really sad, next problem… [there are others] not given enough attention at all…”

“It shouldn’t be as quick. I know, obviously, there’s an issue of trying to sell news, [but] there should be that moral question of there’s a general problem here, what are we, as a media outlet, as the framers of all these stories, what are we going to say about it?”

 

In considering the impact of what we say and how we say it, it’s easy to see how this conversation can become overwhelming, fast. We recognise how complicated it can be to speak up, to engage, or simply to listen and learn what to do next.  Staying silent isn’t an option either. In fact, many of us can’t afford not to have this conversation. This leads us to the ‘how’? How should we talk to each other in a way that is open, conscious and inclusive? How can this discussion best be mobilised to effect positive change for gender equality in Ireland and elsewhere?  One thing we’re lacking is adequate data to help us understand the “web” of causes underlying gender-based violence. Participants struggled to grasp the roots of this issue, theorising patterns of misogyny, suppression of men’s emotions, and a patriarchal “sense of entitlement” as possible reasons for why this keeps happening. An issue described by our government as an “epidemic” and which Noeline observes is relatively class-less compared to other crimes, efforts to “understand what’s driven someone to do this and how we can stop it” appear futile if we are not collecting enough evidence around cause and effect.  Practical and policy responses were suggested, with UCD Student Union’s Darryl Horan citing the need for increased refuge accommodation across the country and SAFE Ireland’s Miriam Kivlehan welcoming the announcement of a single ministry to tackle women’s safety. This is something that the organisation has advocated for years, to address GBV holistically across areas including justice, health, housing and social protection.  Preventative approaches included earlier interventions in education systems to ensure everybody understands the intricate, historical depth of gender inequality, in Ireland and internationally. Within politics, there could be greater female representation and within the media, better portrayals of gender-based violence, domestic abuse and potential innovative solutions. Within the justice system, greater accountability for crimes may be necessary.  Most evidently, we need to re-assess how we speak to each other. When asked about these barriers to communication, Ryan Hart contends that it’s “not helpful to tell people what they can’t do.” It’s actually more effective to tell people what they can gain. 

 

“Any abusive man is miserable… [our father was filled with] resentment, paranoia, he was jealous and bitter, never proud of us or himself… he missed out on a huge amount because of the way he chose to behave.”

“Life without responsibility is dull… without it, you will never [achieve] meaningful happiness. It’s not entirely selfless – men have a lot to gain from understanding gender-based violence.”

 

The way we behave affects everyone. It can benefit everyone, or it can harm everyone. There’s no way to avoid having this conversation, so we’re going to have to try our best to manage it. To take our time, to take away the blame and the boundaries. To accept that we may say the wrong thing. To include and at the same time, hold each other to account. Ultimately, to respect each other. In every domain, every relationship, every way.

At UCD’s vigil in remembrance of Ashling Murphy, Darryl Horan paid heed to the amount of people who approached him and “asked frankly, what’s next?” Men and women alike. Despite divergence, heartache, anger and frustration, there is also hope. There is a bigger picture, within which we are all integral. There is a call to action, if only we choose to listen.

 

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If you are affected by the issues raised in this article, reach out to:

Women’s Aid here 

SAFE Ireland here 

Dublin Rape Crisis Centre here 

Men’s Aid Ireland here 

UCDSU Welfare Officer here 

 

 

Featured Photo from Pexels .

This article was supported by: STAND News Editor Conor Courtney and Engagement Coordinator Aislin

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