Change needed before more women are affected by violence

Jessica Bowes, left, was assaulted by her boyfriend. Jasmine McMonagle, right, was killed in Donegal last Friday of suspected knife wounds.

IS IT unreasonable to have hoped to get through the first week of 2019 without two women being brutally murdered? We are so regularly exposed to the killing of, and violence against women, it’s a concern that it becomes a part of background noise — something that is undeniably tragic, but also a fact of life, writes Alison O’Connor.

There are a number of groups and organisations highlighting the related issues of violence against women and domestic violence, and no lack of media coverage of the shocking killings and attacks, not least the details subsequently released in court cases, but it just seems to gruesomely grind on.

This week Elzbieta Piotrowska a 57-year-old mother of two, was decapitated with an axe at her home in Ardee, Co Louth. Originally from Poland she lived in in the town with her husband, who was at work at the time of the incident, for a number of years. Neighbours described her as a “lovely woman”.

Meanwhile Jasmine McMonagle, a mother of two young children, was describes as a “caring woman who always put others first”. The 28-year-old was buried after being killed at her home in Killygordon, Co Donegal from suspected knife wounds last Friday. Shortly before her death she had called gardaí for help. Reading the reports, it appears as if her young children aged seven and 18 months were in the house at the time of the incident, and remained there for a number of hours afterwards as gardaí had been refused entry to the house. What they must have witnessed does not bear thinking about.

Just days previously, at the start of January, Women’s Aid had welcomed the commencement of the provisions of the new Domestic Violence Act 2018.

Domestic violence is a crime that affects one in five women in Ireland at some point her life. Towards the end of last year Women’s Aid reported in its annual Femicide Watch that 225 women have died violently in Ireland since 1996, an average of ten per year. A further 16 children were killed alongside their mothers. In well over half of those cases the perpetrator was an intimate partner of the victim, while an additional 11% of victims were killed by a male relative. A further 20% were killed by a man known to them.

In November, I wrote a column listing what appeared to be an extraordinary litany of cases reported in the media involving violence against women over just a two week period that month. It involved everything from the alleged rape of a 75-year-old woman in a car park in Co Clare, to the news of 32-year -old mother of two Amanda Carroll being discovered dead at her home in Cabra after being strangled while her two sons slept nearby. Her partner, Sean Nolan, was remanded in custody after he was charged with murdering Ms Carroll in her apartment. Her funeral heard that at 33 she was the same age as Christ when she died, and “would give away her last shilling”.

There was also Limerick woman Simone Lee, aged 39, and the court reports of how she was attacked in 2016 by her former boyfriend Colin Ryan. She suffered a brain injury, broken bones, burns to her face, neck, trunk, eyelids and was stabbed in the back. She lost some of her hair in the attack and now wears a wig. So bad were the injuries gardaí initially believed she had been subject to an acid attack. She was put in an induced medical coma for three weeks and had to learn to walk again because of her injuries. Ryan was given a seven-and-half-year jail term at Limerick Circuit Court for the attack.

On bad days, it does feel as if there is a neverending litany of cases involving violence against women with subsequent light sentences that do not appear to justify in any way the harm done.

It’s a very important development that Women’s Aid has begun a project where it monitors the sentences given to perpetrators of domestic violence.

There is also huge shame for the victims of domestic violence, but another positive recent change is the number of women coming forward to describe their own experiences. One of those is Jessica Bowes who begged for her life during an extraordinarily violent beating by her partner Jonathan McSherry in 2015 outside her Dublin home. 

It takes a strong stomach to listen to her describe that savage beating, where her eye sockets, face and skull were fractured, which she did on RTÉ’s Prime Time in February of last year. That clip of the mother of three young children went viral and has been viewed millions of times. McSherry received a two-and-a-half-year jail sentence.

Our new legislation, the Domestic Violence Act 2018 Act, includes important measures such as the extension for eligibility for safety orders to young women who experience abuse in dating relationships; recognition of an intimate relationship as an aggravating factor in domestic violence cases and recognition of the new crime of coercive control.

Quite incredibly Women’s Aid figures show that intimate partners are sentenced, on average, to three years less prison time compared to other men convicted of killing women, suggesting that an intimate relationship is seen as a mitigating rather than an aggravating factor. Among other provisions are out-of-hours special sittings of the district courts to provide for orders in emergency situations are to be introduced, as well as the prohibition of electronic communication with victims.

Speaking about the new laws, Margaret Martin, director of Women’s Aid, said women must feel change quickly, and it must make them and their children feel safe from abuse. It is crucial that the changes are properly resourced.

But a key element in all of this, as highlighted by Women’s Aid and the National Women’s Council of Ireland is the implementation of the Istanbul Convention. This, according to NWCI director Orla O’Connor, would mean a strategic approach to tackling violence against women, bringing about systematic and institutional change, moving on from the current “weak State response”.

According to the Department of Justice the “first quarter of 2019” should see the ratification of that crucial convention by Ireland. We’ve heard an awful lot about how Brexit is due to take up a lot of Dáil time this year, but this convention, part of a criminal law bill due to conclude its passage through the Oireachtas in the next few months, must be prioritised. Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan has said he wants to send a strong message that the Government takes violence against women very seriously and he is looking for all party support.

It’s too late for Jasmine and Elizabeth and for Amanda and Simone and Jessica and all those other women. But changes have to be made before we see too many women added to a list that already has two names on it.

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