We must change the conversation on domestic violence

Committing a crime against a partner should be an aggravating rather than a mitigating factor, although, for now at least, the Irish system courts seem to disagree, writes Clodagh Finn.

If a single fact jumped off the pages of yesterday’s stark Women’s Aid report on the 216 women who died violently in Ireland since 1996, it was this: The Irish justice system goes easier on a man if he kills a partner or ex-partner, as opposed to a stranger.

Men who kill a wife, girlfriend, or ex-partner are more likely to be charged with manslaughter rather than murder, and they will spend less time in jail than men who kill women in other circumstances.

Nearly three years less on average, according to Femicide Watch 2017, the report on gender-related killings released yesterday by the national organisation working to stop domestic violence against women and children.

It is the first time the organisation has had the hard data to expose a deeply unsettling pattern in Irish courts — our criminal justice system appears to treat men less severely if the woman they kill was once close to them.

Women’s Aid director Margaret Martin said the trend emerged as a very clear finding in the 149 cases studied.

She said the organisation hoped to examine the reasons for that and to press for a change of attitude.

When it comes to sentencing, a man should get a harsher sentence for killing a partner or ex-partner, rather than a more lenient one, the organisation says.

As Femicide Watch 2017 puts it: “This would acknowledge the unique position the killer was in, including the fact that they had intimate knowledge of, and access to, their victim and so brutally betrayed that trust.”

The Istanbul Convention on violence against women, which Ireland backs, also makes that point strongly. It says committing a crime against a partner should be an aggravating rather than a mitigating factor, although, for now at least, Irish courts seem to disagree.

Why is that?

Is it a throwback to a time when a woman was considered a man’s chattel; a personal possession to do with what he pleases? Or does the idea of the crime passionel still hold sway — the perpetrator acted in the heat of passion but out of character?

A closer look at the statistics tell a different story.

This year, eight women died violently — six of them in their own homes — but many, many more said they were living “on a knife’s edge of fear”.

Some 646 women told the Women’s Aid helpline that a man had threatened to kill them, the children, a family member or himself. A further 522 reported being choked, smothered, beaten, or threatened.

Several thousands more — almost 17,000 women and 3,823 children — revealed they had suffered domestic violence last year.

How many more suffer in silence behind closed doors? Hundreds of thousands, according to this report.

Some of those are men, of course, but this study focuses on the experiences of women and while its 30 pages make for depressing reading, they also offer a certain amount of hope.

This is a document that could bring about real and lasting change if all of us, and not just those in power, have the courage to act upon its many recommendations.

One of the simplest things that every one of us can do is to start a conversation about domestic violence so that we might chip away at the many myths still surrounding it.

Today is International Eliminate Violence Against Women Day and it marks the beginning of a 16-day campaign to highlight the experience of the one in five Irish women who have experienced physical or sexual violence.

One of the lingering myths about domestic violence is that women are somehow to blame for what happens to them, or that they would/could have left if things had been that bad.

Leaving is not at all as easy as it sounds and, even if a woman does have the wherewithal to walk away, that does not necessarily solve the problem.

As the statistics show, ending a relationship does not always end the abuse. A quarter of women in contact with Women’s Aid last year reported being abused by a former partner, while 14% of the women who died violently in Ireland were killed by a former partner.

The report has many recommendations for government and the media — some easily achievable, others less so. They will require funding and a change of attitude in the courts, in the gardaí, in our institutions, and in Government.

Yet, there is much that can be achieved without spending anything. What shines through every sentence of this important report is how much could change if we started to change the conversation about domestic violence.

For starters, we could stop and think about the way we talk about women who die in violent circumstances.

The women who died violently in Ireland since January 1996 were recalled yesterday in a national moment of remembrance and their names are included in the final pages of Femicide Watch 2017.

It’s a very affecting list; one made all the more so by the report’s claims that their voices were silenced in court, in police statements and newspaper reports while the perpetrator was allowed to write the story of their deaths.

“Women should not be presented… only by their relationship with their killer or their families,” the report says.

Think about it for a moment. Too often, the focus is on the killer, the circumstances, the horror of the violence. The female victim is little more than a faded image on a screen, or an out-of-focus photograph printed in low resolution.

We can try, at least, to scoop up the victim’s dignity from the crime scene and flesh out a more complete picture of the woman who once was.

But more than that, we must work to ensure that it doesn’t get to that catastrophic stage. Ultimately, violence might be physical and fatal but it doesn’t always start there. You don’t need to have a bruise to call Women’s Aid 24-hour confidential National Freephone Helpline on 1800 341 900.


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