By refusing to accept that violence against women is not just a problem but an epidemic — we are complicit, writes Louise O’Neill
I was lucky enough to be invited to speak at the Safe Ireland Summit on violence against women a couple of weeks ago.
Their mission in creating the Summit was to make Ireland the safest place in the world for women and children and they gathered speakers, thinkers, advocates, activists, and artists together to brainstorm about how we could achieve just that, to call for change, and to disrupt the status quo that is allowing women and children to be systemically victimised.
It was organised by Simone George, Sharon O’Halloran, and the rest of the Safe Ireland team, resulting in one of the most exhilarating events I have ever participated in.
It wasn’t self-pitying or plaintive, although there were heart-rending stories of abuse told; it was a showcase for strength, determination, a ferocious energy crackling through the Mansion House like a live wire.
I left feeling invigorated and fiercely angry, determined to do more to assist Safe Ireland in their vital work.
What I heard during those two days frightened me – the statistics around domestic violence in this country are stark.
On just one day in 2014, 475 women and 301 children sought support from a domestic violence service in Ireland. One in three Irish women is currently experiencing severe psychological abuse, one-in-four suffering sexual or physical abuse.
Think about that. One in every three Irish woman is living a life of fear. And yet, I don’t know anyone who is in an abusive relationship.
I don’t know anyone who grew up in a household where domestic abuse was a part of their everyday lives. And yet, I must.
The statistics are clear — someone in my circle of friends or in my extended family must be affected by a violent partner or parent. So, why don’t I know about it?
The same culture of shame that I have seen choke-rape victims into silence seems to exist around the issue of domestic violence.
It’s happening to people in our lives, to people we love, to our friends and family and neighbours, and yet the rest of us turn away, we pretend we don’t see it; we accept illogical excuses for sudden limps and bruises blushing violently across a co-worker’s cheek.
Maybe we don’t want to know. Maybe it’s easier that way.
Maybe it’s easier to keep a distance between us and ‘them’, to declare that we would never allow that to happen to us, to ask ‘why don’t these women just leave?’ ‘why do these women just put up with it?’; every ‘just’ spoken a reprimand, a barrier to a woman trusting us enough to ask for help, a heaping of responsibility on to the victim.
We don’t express our disbelief that a woman’s partner is abusing her, we are instead frustrated by her inability to take action, ignoring sometimes cripplingly prohibitive financial factors, a decimation of an abused woman’s self esteem, or indeed just abject terror that she or her children might be murdered whilst making their escape.
At the event, a speaker told of her first time at a refuge and asking why there was a basket of shoes at the door and she was told that many of the women arrive without shoes. They left in the middle of the night. Shoes are noisy, the clatter of a leather sole against a wooden stair, and noise is not something they can afford to make. Can you imagine the desperation one must feel, fleeing your home in your bare feet? And yet we ask, time and again – why do these women put up with it?
The real problem here is the constant framing and re-framing of violence against women as a woman’s issue.
A teacher told me that when showing my documentary on rape culture to a class of transition year girls, that they expressed their disappointment that it seemed ‘anti-men’.
Even at the summit, the audience was predominantly made up of women. Men that I know, good men, have told me they are uncomfortable discussing this issue, as they feel as if they are being branded as abusers just by virtue of their gender.
And while men are also victims of domestic and sexual violence, not to mention the millions of young boys who are being indoctrinated into a cycle of abuse on a daily basis, this discomfort is precluding us from having an open and honest conversation about an issue that is affecting over a billion women worldwide.
And yes, I use the word women deliberately, because the statistics show the perpetrators of this abuse are predominantly male. The time wasted arguing over the ethics of #NotAllMen is time we could use to tackle toxic masculinity and misogyny, the tangled roots in which domestic violence begins.
To give a very rudimentary example, studies have shown that men who are unemployed are more likely to abuse their partners and children, that their sense that they are ‘failing’ to provide leads to overwhelming feelings of inadequacy which causes them to lash out in frustration.
Yet, do we assume that the man should be the main breadwinner?
That archaic thinking is a direct product of a patriarchal culture that sees it as the male duty to financially support the household rather than it being a joint responsibility between equal partners.
The patriarchy is hurting us all, quite literally in these cases.
When I interviewed Niamh Ní Dhomnaill for the Asking For It documentary, she told me that “we cannot continue to see abuse as being between two people. We’re all part of it.”
By refusing to accept that violence against women is not just a problem but an epidemic, by allowing our uneasiness with confrontation to paralyse us, by refusing to take action because this kind of abuse is ‘private, family matter’, we are not just ignoring this issue – we are complicit in allowing it to continue.
I don’t want to be complicit anymore.
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