Our system is stacked against women. In more or less every conceivable way. The law, business, management, politics, public administration, even the provision of services.
Women who are old are expected to be grateful for what they get — and what they get tends to be what the system can afford, rather than what they’re entitled to as citizens.
Women who are widowed find they have to cope with labyrinthine bureaucracy on top of the grief they are suffering — transferring a
utility bill from the name of your late husband to your own name can actually be a traumatic experience for some.
Women who are disabled find themselves at the back of every queue, and often treated as if they are invisible. Women who have medical conditions — especially those referred to in polite circles as “women’s problems” — often discover that their conditions are the least-researched, least-understood, and least-empathised with.
I listened recently to a radio discussion about the menopause, and found myself remembering a friend whose hormonal changes had left her feeling entirely alone. No one would talk, no one would take the time to try to understand it, everyone (the ones closest to her especially, it seemed) thought she was at best a bit of a nuisance, at worst hysterical and self-pitying.
Apart from the specifics, women are subjected to an extraordinary amount of sexism in their daily lives — from the casual to the specific. I don’t know a single woman who hasn’t experienced sexist behaviour — usually a lot, usually in the pretty recent past.
We might think the world is changing around this issue, but if it is, it’s bloody slow.
Sexism can range from the insulting and annoying to the threatening and intimidating, and it seems sometimes like a pandemic for which there isn’t a vaccine.
Over and above all that — if that is possible — women who are attacked, physically or sexually, often find themselves trapped in a never-ending nightmare. The incidences of domestic violence of which women are the sufferers have gone up since the pandemic and lockdowns arrived. Organisations representing women, especially women in crisis, are being overwhelmed with new cases and with a huge volume of historic abuses.
Of course, women who react — who fight back or complain or see justice — sometimes seem to be in the worst position of all. A woman can go to a rape trial as a witness to the terrible thing that happened to her, and emerge from the trial feeling as if she has been raped again — this time in front of a crowded courtroom.
It’s perhaps not surprising that many women believe that the law of the land was written by men for men. I’ve written about this frequently — most recently about the Rape Crisis Centre’s conclusion that only one in seven rapes reported to the gardaí results in the alleged perpetrator being charged and facing a trial. If that’s a fact, it could mean that up to six out of every seven rapists face no consequences at all for their actions.
Believing all this as I do, I don’t want what I say next to be misinterpreted or taken out of context. Because there is another problem, and in its own way is very corrosive, very damaging. It’s the problem of violence against men.
I’m not talking about violence among men, which is itself pretty widespread.
There is a small organisation called Men’s Aid (it used to be called Amen — their contact details are at the foot of this article). It is run by someone I know and have enormous respect for, Kathrina Bentley. It receives around €250,000 in State funding each year — a tiny fraction of the total the State spends on counteracting domestic violence and dealing with its effects.
So it runs on a shoestring — two full-timers and four part-timers. Last year they did their best to respond to and support 5,500 men who contacted their domestic abuse service. This year it looks like it will be closer to 7,500. They counsel and advise, sometimes accompany men to the Family Court, and offer what outreach they can.
Who are the men who call? The organisation has answered the phone to farmers, public servants, Travellers, men with disabilities, even a member of An Garda Síochána. There isn’t a demographic — all ages, all income streams, all nationalities and ethnicities are included in the numbers.
They have a few things in common. Often they have never revealed what is happening to them before. They tend to be at a point where coping is no longer possible. It’s not always about physical violence — coercive control and other forms of abusive or threatening behaviour are a common feature.
Some of the men who call are sleeping in their cars at night or in a garden shed. A fairly common feature of the form of control exercised is false allegations against them by the person abusing them. And that, of course, gives rise to the issue of believability.
Because at the bottom of domestic violence against men is a unique stigma. It’s not just the shame of being a man and incapable of “fighting your own battle”, it’s the tacit assumption that a man who alleges that his wife has been abusing him can’t possibly be telling the truth.
That may be the main reason men are forced to live alone with abuse. “Look at the size of you and look at the size of her”, is a not unusual response to a man who admits to being subjected to physical violence. That response implies two never spoken thoughts. The first is, ‘I don’t believe you’. And the alternative is, ‘why not hit her back?’
The depth of this stigma means that there are other consequences to abuse against men. If you can talk openly about something, it’s a way of managing fear. If you can’t, fear becomes a deep-seated anxiety, which in turn can become chronic depression. There are very few men who have been regularly abused in domestic situations who can claim to have escaped without damage to their mental health.
There are some who have given up access to their children, and moved away from friends and family entirely, because they believe they cannot establish that they have been the victims of domestic abuse. There are some who have come to the point of suicide over something they know they won’t be believed about if they tell their friends.
All forms of domestic abuse — against women and against men — are enabled by secrecy. So this isn’t an issue of balancing one form of abuse against another. There’s no whataboutery here. Being open to a discussion about violence against men cannot in any sense replace the need to continuously address the endless discrimination against women.
We’ve simply got to talk about domestic violence, recognising that sometimes the roles of victim and perpetrator are reversed. We’ve got to fund the services decently. We’ve got to provide decent supports to whoever needs them.
We’ve got to get rid of shame and stigma.
• Men’s Aid Ireland offers support in a number of ways to men and their families experiencing domestic violence, including coercive control.
• You can phone the confidential helpline on 01 5543811, email Men's Aid at firstname.lastname@example.org, or click here to visit the MensAid.ie website to learn more, access their services, or make a donation to support their work.