Sarah Benson: Women are not afraid of the dark. They're afraid of violent men

Keys clenched in our fists, women are wondering how we can keep ourselves safe. In the aftermath of Ashling Murphy's killing, it's time to turn to spotlight on the perpetrators
Sarah Benson: Women are not afraid of the dark. They're afraid of violent men

Sarah Benson, CEO of Women’s Aid: 'We need a zero tolerance to all forms of male violence against women, and it will take all of us to commit to lasting change.' Picture: Paul Sharp

We’ve been here before. Flowers laid at the scene. Condolences expressed. Beautiful pictures shared of a woman whose live has been cruelly cut short.

This time, the poignant phrase ‘she was going for a run’ gained traction on social media and at vigils for Ashling Murphy, capturing the shock that a woman could lose her life in such ordinary circumstances.

Genuine sadness, anger, and sincere commitments that lessons must be learned — ‘never again’.

Yet the focus fades with time, until the next appalling event. Women’s Aid has been recording the violent deaths of women for over 25 years.

Each time we add a name, it is painful, but we record these killings to illustrate the connection between the broad spectrum of male violence against women that ranges from sexist trolling, catcalling, groping, to intimate partner abuse, coercive control, sexual assault, rape, commercial exploitation, FGM, and the ultimate act of violence: Femicide. We record to encourage us all to strive and better prevent abuse and increase protections for women and girls.

 Floral tributes left at Fiona's Way — itself commemorating the 1996 disappearance of Fiona Pender — near where Ashling Murphy was killed on the banks of the canal in Tullamore, Co Offaly. Picture: Eamonn Farrell
Floral tributes left at Fiona's Way — itself commemorating the 1996 disappearance of Fiona Pender — near where Ashling Murphy was killed on the banks of the canal in Tullamore, Co Offaly. Picture: Eamonn Farrell

More than this, we record each woman’s name so we never forget her, and everything she and all her loved ones have been senselessly robbed of.

Femicide is the extreme end of a spectrum of violence and abuse that women in Ireland, and across the world, experience every day. One in three women worldwide experiences some form of violence by men in their lifetime.

While homicide is rare, and killings by a stranger even more so, Ashling’s death shows that women’s worst nightmares can come true. As Ashling’s family, friends, and community try to deal with this unimaginable loss, society has questions to answer.

Similar to the case of Sarah Everard in England last year, public anguish has been immediate and intense since Wednesday evening. 

Online, there has been an outpouring of women’s lifelong experiences of systemic misogyny and casual sexism and abuse. 

Many women are sharing stories of how instinctively fearful they feel in public, and the strategies they employ to try to keep themselves safe.  Many women are expressing their anger and their dismay at constantly feeling that the burden of responsibility for men’s violence is put on their shoulders.

Turning the spotlight on the perpetrators

Inevitably, discussion quickly turned to what women should do to avoid being attacked — personal safety alarms, self-defence classes, staying in groups, keys held protruding from our fingers as we walk. The list is endless.

Women work hard at avoiding everything from unwanted attention to physical violence, but it seems nowhere and no time is safe: Schoolteacher Ashling Murphy was killed while out jogging in a popular public path at around 4pm in the afternoon.
Women work hard at avoiding everything from unwanted attention to physical violence, but it seems nowhere and no time is safe: Schoolteacher Ashling Murphy was killed while out jogging in a popular public path at around 4pm in the afternoon.

However, when we acknowledge that these are simply not tactics most men feel any need to adopt to simply jog from place to place in public, we know that something is very wrong.

A victim of violence cannot control the choices and actions of their aggressor. A darkened street does not magically incite otherwise mild-mannered men to attack a passing female. Focusing on the victim or on the environment in which an attack occurs are both red herrings. 

Violence is caused by the choices and actions of the perpetrator. Women are not afraid of the dark. They are afraid of a violent man or men waiting in that dark. 

Any response to Wednesday’s appalling events must not focus on places — it must focus on perpetrators. We must not fall into tired tropes of examining whether areas are ‘safe’ but consider instead the attitudes and actions of men who make women feel unsafe even in crowded and well-lit areas.

When women speak up about the harm perpetrated on them by men, there is often the reactionary ‘not all men’ response. Of course, no one argues that all men are violent. However, the stark fact is that the majority of violence against women — and indeed violence against men — is perpetrated by men. That’s something we need to tackle as a whole society.

Every woman should have the right to be safe, both in their own homes and in their communities.

Zero tolerance

We need a zero tolerance to all forms of male violence against women, and it will take all of us to commit to lasting change. This, critically, includes men who must act as allies in tackling misogyny and inequality. 

Men calling out such things as degrading language, groping, sexist comments by their peers is a simple but powerful and necessary act of solidarity with all the women in their lives. 

Ignoring such acts at the ‘lower end’ of the spectrum of male violence against women can give the person behaving that way a sense that their actions are accepted, normal, or even approved of by their peers.

This can have a cumulative effect that — in the worst of cases — can lead to increased levels of abuse up to and including the most violent of sexual and physical assaults on women.

Promoting respectful relationships

There needs to be a commitment to education from the earliest ages to promote gender equality and respectful relationships between boys and girls that are grounded in respect, trust and parity of esteem.

Resources and criminal justice

We need continued and enhanced resources for specialist domestic and sexual violence services for victims/survivors and we need an improved criminal justice system that better protects women and holds perpetrators meaningfully to account.

These three approaches are equally required: Prevention, protection, and prosecution.

If we do this, we will ultimately create a more equal and safe society for everyone — men and women alike.

• Sarah Benson is the chief executive of Women’s Aid, a national frontline organisation working to prevent and address the impact of domestic violence and abuse.

• If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this article, please call Women's Aid on 1800 341 900 or visit WomensAid.ie and see here for a range of other support services.

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