15th of February 2022
When I think of the concept of freedom, a number of thoughts come to mind. Birds in flight, chains being broken, open fields, having the right to speak our minds, make our own decisions, wear what we want, look how we want, do what makes us feel happy and healthy, having the freedom to think what we choose and go wherever we want to go, all while knowing that our safety is not in jeopardy.
Feeling free and feeling safe are concepts that are inherently interdependent. I believe they need each other in order to harmoniously coexist. But what happens when our freedom, our fundamental human right, is violated? What happens when we no longer feel like we can go to work, be alone, go out with friends, exercise or simply leave our homes because we feel as though these freedoms may come at the cost of our safety or even our lives? These questions are unfortunately not hypothetical. They are the morbid reality that floods the minds of women across the world. Gender Based Violence has become a deep and intractable iceberg that has lodged itself in our society and shows no signs of melting without intervention. This brutality against women is a pandemic. Our safety and our freedom is undeniably under threat.
On the 12th of January 2022, Ashling Murphy went for a run along the Grand Canal in Tullamore in broad daylight and never returned home. But it does not matter what she was doing or at what time of day she was doing it. What matters is that Ashling Murphy should be alive. On that day, Ashling became a victim of the silenced pandemic. A pandemic that has already destroyed the lives and freedoms of hundreds of Irish women.
Each year, the Sakharov Prize is awarded by the European Parliament to honour exceptional individuals who defend human rights and fundamental freedoms. In 2014 this prize was awarded to Denis Mukwege. As a gynaecologist in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Denis Mukwege has dedicated his life to treating women who are victims of sexual and physical violence perpetrated by men in times of war. He has become the world’s leading specialist in the treatment of violence against women and is a global campaigner against the use of this violence as a weapon of warfare. Despite numerous attempts on his life, Mukwege continues to fight against Gender Based Violence and in doing so, promotes societal and cultural change in a country in which brutality against women has been used as a pawn in a deadly game of war for over two decades. (Source: NobelPrize.org)
Denis Mukwege, Sakharov Prize Laureate 2014 at the European Parliament on March 26, 2015
But what is the relevance of discussing Denis Mukwege? As someone who grew up in Ireland, I believe that many of us are highly accustomed to ignoring our problems. Ignorance hides in the shadows of our culture. We hear about international atrocities and civil unrest or even about socio-cultural issues that wreak havoc in neighbouring countries and yet, we take comfort in thinking that Ireland is somehow different.
We may agree that these problems are unjust, but in Ireland, these injustices are ‘their’ problems and not ‘ours’. We are safe because an entire ocean separates ‘us’ from ‘them’. But we are not safe. Gender Based Violence does not respect borders, nor does it differentiate peace time from war time. In fact, if there were no dominant traces of sexism, shame, harmful stereotypes or misogynistic attitudes in times of peace, then violence against women would not function so effectively in times of war.
Even though the Democratic Republic of Congo is geographically detached from Ireland and Mukwege’s patients come from different cultures and circumstances to our own, what divides us becomes irrelevant when experiences become universal. The Congolese women I am speaking of have experienced the most heinous form of Gender Based Violence, just like Sarah Everard, Nadine Lott, Jennie Poole, Jastine Valdez and Natalia Karaczyn to name just a few. Just like Ashling Murphy.
A sobering mirror has been held up to our society over the past number of weeks. The mirror has exposed the dominance and aggression that not all men, but too many men assert over women. The aggression does not have to be physical, it can and does occur in any form, at any time, by any person. Misogynistic comments and assumptions about women occur in everyday life. Harmful pornographic content, sexual harassment, behaviour that goes unchecked and words passed off as ‘harmless jokes’ all nourish the relentless beast that is misogyny. It begs the question: How has this behaviour become so entrenched in our everyday lives? Why is it normalised? Can we blame our legal systems? Institutions? Policymaking? Media? While I believe that there are a myriad of factors to blame, at its core, sexism is perpetuated by cultural values.
Contemporary culture has become a breeding ground for allowing boys and young men to dehumanise and disrespect women. The consumption of film and television that glamorizes misogyny and encourages men to feel entitled to women has the potential to later manifest itself in consuming pornography that trades in the degradation of women. Being exposed to popular content of this nature from a young age establishes dangerous behavioural norms amongst men and creates unrealistic expectations surrounding female relationships and affection. On a wider cultural scale, society is guilty of trivialising Gender Based Violence through media framing, victim-blaming, and shaky legal frameworks. Therefore, if men are exposed to blatant sexism from a young age and subsequently grow up in a society that enables these misogynistic attitudes and behaviours then our society and our cultural values are brewing the perfect storm against the freedom and safety of women.
When violence is perpetrated against women, often the first questions that are asked are: What was she wearing? Was she drunk? What was she doing alone? Hence, it seems that the world we live in is still not tired of finding ways to blame women who are victims of Gender Based Violence as opposed to fixing the societal misogyny that costs them their lives. The death of Ashling Murphy is not an isolated incident. It is a deadly pattern that we have witnessed time and time again and until we decide to treat it as such, women will continue to be harassed, stalked, assaulted and murdered. Laws should be implemented and policies can change but until we acknowledge the foundation of Gender Based Violence – the sexist culture our society has enabled – the iceberg will not melt. Women will not feel safe. Women will not feel free. Denis Mukwege once said “We cannot operate against violence. We can only abolish it”. His words aptly encapsulate the pandemic of Gender Based Violence. If we cannot destroy the roots, the weeds will only grow back thicker.
It is so important to stay connected on issues such as Gender Based Violence that not only affect our society, but societies around the world. STAND will be launching a new campaign in Spring that seeks to take a look at issues that arise from Gender Based Violence from a global perspective. The campaign will explore how we can stay engaged, take action and raise awareness on Gender Based Violence so that we can understand and fight to abolish it on a global level.
To find out more information on Gender Based Violence, listed below are organisations in Ireland and abroad that work to fight against it:
Irish Consortium on Gender Based Violence
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
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