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Rosalind Skillen

Governments must act now over gender based violence

Rosalind Skillen

Murder of Ashling Murphy highlights a clear need for change


Ashling Murphy

Ashling Murphy

Ashling Murphy

A week has passed since the tragic murder of Ashling Murphy, a 23-year-old primary school teacher from County Offaly, Ireland.

During this week, there have been vigils, silent rallies, and public demonstrations across the island of Ireland to remember Ashling, and all victims of gender based violence. This week has also been filled with an outpouring of despair, grief and sadness. However, perhaps the most overwhelming response to the murder of Ashling has been outrage.

Outrage that we keep adding names to the list of murdered women. Outrage that we are witnessing an increase — rather than eradication — of gender based violence. Outrage that our governments are failing to address the ‘shadow pandemic’. Outrage that ‘she did everything right’.

On social media, thousands of people were sharing posts in memory of Ashling with the caption ‘she was going for a run’. In some ways, this does not go far enough. Writing ‘she was going for a run’ somewhat implies that Ashling’s murder would not have been quite as tragic were she doing something else. Does it even matter what Ashling was doing? No woman should be killed.

However, it is still worth pointing out that — by society’s standards — Ashling did everything she was ‘supposed’ to do.

She was running during daylight hours. She was familiar with the walkway. She was running along a popular, well-lit route described by Fianna Fáil councillor, Declan Harvey, as ‘probably the safest place in the world’. None of this prevented Ashling from being strangled to death at 4pm on a Wednesday afternoon.

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Ashling’s murder opens an important conversation about the spaces in which women can freely and safely occupy. It reminds us of the parameters of women’s safety. It also reminds us of a history of gender based violence and injustice.

Ashling was murdered on a canal walkway outside Tullamore in County Offaly. This canal bears tragic, historic significance. In 1996, Fiona Pender disappeared along this same canal walkway. The walkway, now known as ‘Fiona’s Walkway’, bears Fiona’s name in memory of her tragic disappearance. Fiona was also from Tullamore. Fiona was 25 years old. Fiona was 7 months pregnant.

The location of Ashling’s murder: along Fiona’s Way, therefore reinforces how gender based violence is not a new reality. It reinforces a history of gendered violence. It also reinforces the inaction of our governments.

1996 to 2022. 25 years have passed. Yet, what has changed? How have our governments responded to gender based violence?

The lack of response to the ‘shadow pandemic’ would suggest that governments have done very little.

The ‘shadow pandemic’ refers to the increased rates of domestic abuse and violence against women since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Tighter restrictions and lockdown measures mean that those living in abusive relationships have become further isolated and trapped. Of course, it must be noted that Covid-19 restrictions and lockdown measures are extremely important to prevent the virus from spreading. However, as the UN Secretary-General explains, Covid-19 must not be a barrier to eliminating violence against women. Instead, we can address this widespread, global surge in domestic violence by increasing public awareness campaigns, increasing the availability of online services for victims to seek support, and increasing funding for shelters where victims can seek safety.

Domestic violence affects people across the globe, but this issue is particularly prevalent in Northern Ireland. By May 2020, the PSNI had received at least 3,755 calls relating to domestic abuse since lockdown began in March — only two months prior. More recently, there has also been a reported increase in domestic violence abuse calls during the Christmas break.

It is devastating that, along with Romania, Northern Ireland has the joint highest rate in Europe of domestic violence female murders. Proportionately more women are murdered in Northern Ireland because of domestic violence than in any other part of western Europe.

Indeed, 12 women have been murdered in Northern Ireland since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.

These harrowing statistics, then, elicit the question: where is our government’s response?

Undeniably, there is a clear need for change. Our government needs to provide additional resources and further training to address violence against women. Our government needs to strengthen our support services and healthcare systems. Our government needs to reform our education systems to provide young people with an understanding and awareness of gender based violence. Most importantly, our government needs to start listening to the voices of women as well as the community groups and grassroots organisations fiercely advocating for gender equity and justice.

We often avoid reading or writing about the distressing details about a woman’s death in the press. This needs to be challenged. We need to question what is driving these actions. We need to talk about the reasons behind senseless, needless deaths like Ashling Murphy’s.

This is not about simply ‘making a difference’. This is about saving lives.

If you have experienced domestic or sexual violence, free and confidential help is available at: Lifeline, Rape Crisis NI, Women’s Aid and Men’s Advisory Project.

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