Women are still deterred from reporting violence

Tens of millions of people across the globe have been following the unfolding story of the allegations of sexual assault against US Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

Two women, Christine Blasey Ford and Deborah Ramirez, it is reported, are set to testify on Thursday before the US Senate Judiciary Committee to address their allegations, and to be given, what we hope will be, a fair hearing.

This whole case is unsettling. Not just because of the sordid details of humiliation, hurt, long-held trauma and inequality that underpin the stories that the women have told, but because the dominant establishment response to both the accusations and the accusers is to immediately dismiss, minimise, scathe and undermine.

It is incredible, it would seem, that a man of such high reputation, who is a Supreme Court nominee, could possibly engage in such predatory, debasing behaviour. One year after the re-emergence of the #MeToo movement, what this high-profile case is telling us loud and clear is that the default response of dominant power structures like politics is still a resounding “believe the man”.

It is perhaps the inevitability of this response that is most unsettling. It highlights a statement made by an Irish woman interviewed for a soon-to-be-published piece of research carried out by Safe Ireland estimating the cost of domestic violence. She said, in a very matter-of-fact way, that, “Women suffer from the man; then they suffer from the system.”

This statement is searing in its truth and simplicity. It is what Christine Blasey Ford and Deborah Ramirez are experiencing now in a very public forum. But it is also what survivors of gender-based violence here in Ireland are experiencing every day, silently, away from the glare of notoriety.

All you hear all along is you will get your day in court. No you don’t. You get five minutes to be abused further. It’s nothing else

In 2014, research by the EU Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) said that one in three Irish women reported some type of psychological violence by a partner since the age of 15. One in four reported some form of physical and sexual violence by a partner or non-partner since the age of 15. This same research said that a massive 79 per cent of Irish women never reported a serious physical or sexual assault by a partner to the police.

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The real danger to women is within their own home

Just this month, a man in Mayo killed his wife and attempted to kill his son.

The reports of Kitty Fitzgerald’s violent death in her home focussed on the assurance that, “…no third party was involved in the horrific deaths of an elderly couple and the serious assault on their son.” It was important that the community knew that there was no outside involvement, because that was what we wanted them to focus their concern on.

A couple of months ago, in Cavan, a man killed his wife and his three children. Our newspapers were full of our questions: “Why did he do it?”; “How could he kill those poor boys?” We heard what an honourable man the murderer was: “a valuable member of the community”.

Days passed and our reports were so focused on Alan Hawe and the children he killed, that it wasn’t until Linnea Dunne wrote Rest in Peace, Invisible Woman – an article that was republished internationally and created #HerNameWasClodagh – that we talked or thought about Clodagh.

Only a year ago, Siobhan Phillips and Garda Tony Golden were shot by her partner when they returned to her house to pack her bag so she could leave his violence. Siobhan almost died. Tony Golden did die and on the day of his funeral, Tony was described as being killed while doing “a bread and butter type call” – the type of calls that police members attend to every day, every Sunday.

In Ireland we haven’t quite figured out how to talk about the fact that not everyone is born into, or marries into a loving, safe home. We haven’t figured out how to talk with outrage about the “bread and butter” violence inflicted on women everyday in their homes. And most of all, we haven’t figured out how to be outraged at our own apathy and blithe acceptance of that violence – the fact that it continues to be called a “domestic”.

We don’t talk about problems in the home

We have side-stepped, dodged and ducked taking on the last institution in Irish society. The home. Until we do, we will not take on domestic violence. We will continue to focus on the fabrication of danger to women from outside the home rather than accepting that the real danger is from within.

Of the recent solved murders of Irish women, more than half of the women were murdered by their husband, partner or ex-partner. So in reality, the Mayo community should not have been reassured that no third party was involved in Kitty Fitzgerald’s death a few weeks ago. They have a much more real need to be reassured about the threats inside their homes and relationships.

Domestic violence is a crime. And domestic violence is everyone’s business. Domestic violence kills our women and children. It is a practice supported and re-enacted through cultural narratives, by the State and by us through our media and our communities. Our cultural narrative – don’t speak ill of the dead – trumps the deaths of these women, who we then bury with their killers and laud them from our altars as saints.

We need to listen to women

But if the walls could speak, would we listen to these women? And could we re-tell those truths in another way. What Linnea Dunne described as the patriarchal narrative ran through the entire Cavan story, “from the act itself, to the reporting of it…” She said, “…we need to allow ourselves to see it, if we are to find a way to prevent similar events from happening again.”

I have the privilege of listening to those walls when they speak. In my work with SAFE Ireland and the domestic violence services across our country that we collaborate with, we take these truths and look at the unassailable facts in them so that we can help women find safety and move towards eradicating domestic violence.

We have to find a new way of talking about the home and of replacing the old narratives that maintain domestic violence. In our recent past we addressed our shame and we engaged in a process of truth and reconciliation with those women and babies buried in unmarked graves after years of suffering and abuse in Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes.

There was a time when our culture condoned this gender apartheid, this denial of children’s rights as human rights. We now know it as abhorrent to all that is good in Irish people. And I think that when we engaged in this process, when we dared to look at the worst of ourselves, we found the best in ourselves.

We have to do the same with domestic violence. We have to break down the institution of the home in the same way we broke down the institutions that jailed mothers and babies. And most of all we have to change the way we talk about it. We have to listen to the home truths. And then we have to act on what we hear.

Why we need to keep talking about Clodagh Hawe

We may think that everything that needs to be said has been said about Alan Hawe’s decision to murder Clodagh Hawe (née Coll) and their beautiful children. But it hasn’t. We have to keep the conversation going and we have to have it in a way that includes everyone in this country.

We have to take this terrible pain and do something good with it. We have to do the things that we know we can do to reduce the chances of this happening again and we have to do those things now. It is tough stuff, but in Ireland we know through how we faced and dismantled the institutionalised abuse of children that we find the best of ourselves when we are brave enough to examine the worst of ourselves.

Ireland can become the safest country in the world for women and children. We need leadership to achieve this and that leadership can no longer come only from inside the domestic violence sector. Ireland’s women and children need its entire people to change our culture. They need us to educate ourselves on the common phenomenon that is the abuse of women and children and to then use our spheres of influence – our family, friends and work networks – to share what we’ve learned.

I had a conversation with a man today; we talked about the murders but he found it difficult. He had lost three children and his grief was apparent. He could not comprehend how Alan Hawe could murder his entire family, particularly the children.

He said “these people must snap”, but as we talked I understood that he knew the edges that you step up to as you experience pain; that he was talking about the edge before you snap.

We can’t explain these murders, or domestic abuse and violence by just saying someone “snapped”; there is much written elsewhere about this. But I do believe that all of us need to understand the edges.

At the edge we meet ourselves, our attitudes and our belief systems. If our belief system tells us we own our partner and children, have rights over them and they cannot live without us, what might we consider as we stand at the edge?

Psychiatrist and author James Gilligan (NYU) draws on 25 years of work in the US prison system to describe the motivation and causes behind violent behavior in our society. When asked what leads to violence against women he talks about his time as head psychiatrist in San Francisco prisons where more than half the inmates were there for domestic violence.

“These men were operating on the basis of… really an unconscious set of beliefs… we call it the ‘male role belief system’… that the world was divided into the superior and the inferior and that in that division men were supposed to be superior and women were supposed to be inferior… This ideology is a recipe for violence and it produced violence.”

He is talking about the inevitability of violence to enforce an unequal societal structure.

We need to have a conversation about what our country will look like when we have eradicated this belief system that creates the control, dominance and ownership of women and children.

The public conversation was largely that Alan Hawe’s murders were an aberration, a tragic, isolated event involving a pillar of the community patriarch.

As the national domestic violence organization SAFE Ireland, many of our 40 member services around the country had a different reaction to the Hawe murders. These services have a collective 40 years of experience of domestic violence in Ireland – we have to start listening to them.

There was much made last week of a spike in calls to Women’s Aid helpline service, which takes 9,000 calls a year. But we have to talk about the rest of the year and the rest of the country and the 50,000 calls a year to our services, every day, every night, and the women and children who arrive at their doors for refuge. We have to keep talking about Clodagh because it could happen to other women without our intervention.

We have to talk about the allocation of resources to do what we know we can do to prevent the abuse and the death. When we have a gangland killing in this country we deploy additional gardaí. Not so when women and children are killed and many thousands more threatened every day in their homes. – one in three women experiences psychological violence, one in four experiences physical and sexual violence from a partner or non-partner. That speaks to about 580,000 women who have experienced psychological abuse and 440,000 women who have experienced physical and sexual violence. We should be appalled by this; we should be taking clear action.

We can prevent these murders. We can open the doors of our refuges and let people in when they call, instead of turning them away due to a lack of resources.

We can learn to trust women when they say that they are afraid.

We can trust ourselves to know and say what is wrong and then not to have our heads turned away by calls for objectivity, for avoiding a rush to judgment, for that absolute and understandable urge in us to find insanity rather than brutality.