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Jane Monckton Smith: This week's tragedy in Tullamore should be Ireland's watershed moment

Ireland must address gender-based violence once and for all, Professor Jane Monckton Smith writes.

Jane Monckton Smith

WE ARE NEARING the first anniversary of the murder of Sarah Everard, a killing said to have created yet another watershed moment in the UK where everyone admitted the scale of the problem of male violence against women.

It seemed as if there was unprecedented anger and pledges of strong action, but less than a year on there have been over 100 more deaths of women to male violence in the UK, and the enquiry into what happened to Sarah has not yet got a statutory footing.

Some are saying they are worried the momentum has already stalled. Now we hear of the murder in Ireland of Ashling Murphy in Tullamore, a young woman out for an afternoon run in broad daylight. Maybe this will be Ireland’s watershed moment, but given what we’ve also seen in the UK, I worry this dreadful tragedy could fade all too quickly from the collective memory.

‘Hold to account’

Tackling male violence against women takes tenacity and strength because, in my experience, the barriers to achieving change are high. The onus inevitably falls back on women to keep themselves safe, rather than the more difficult job of holding violent and abusive men to account.

In the UK, the new National Policing Framework for tackling Violence Against Women promises amongst other things, that there will be a ‘relentless pursuit’ of perpetrators. This has hitherto been missing from criminal justice responses to violent and abusive men. It is an established criminological theory that it is the surety of being held to account that is the strongest deterrence to crime; not as is popularly believed, the strength of the punishment, or the length of the sentence.

Many abusive and violent men have been allowed to escape being held to account, and this has had its price for women and for society. We have ready-made and well-rehearsed excuses and justifications for male violence trotted out when men behave badly, behave criminally, or even when they kill someone.

They are so familiar to us, we treat them as truths, not excuses. And alongside this, we deploy victim-blaming, those questions and assumptions that make women appear culpable in their own rapes and murders. Was she dressed appropriately? Was she drunk? Was she a nag? Was she where she shouldn’t have been? Was she walking alone? Should she have known better? Why didn’t she leave?

Blaming women is so deep in our cultural bone marrow that it’s second nature. But it protects the assailants and makes all of us less safe.

Rape, sexual assault, and domestic abuse are significantly under-reported at least partially because of the way victims are treated by the system and by society. For those women who do report, their chances of a successful prosecution are shamefully low. Women are avoiding reporting, and the system isn’t convicting, and that means perpetrators are acting with near impunity.

In the UK for example there is a reported 1.5% prosecution rate for rape, and only 18% of women report domestic abuse. Even when there is an arrest and the perpetrators are subject to licence or bail conditions, it is not unusual for those conditions to be breached with no sanction.

Domestic abuse

And then will come the inevitable disingenuous defensive arguments: It’s ‘not all men’ and it’s just a ‘bad apple’ not a ‘bad barrel’. Women know it’s not all men, but they don’t know which men. The scale of the issue is too big to pin it on the ‘odd loner’. The perpetrators are our friends, neighbours and colleagues, or strangers to us who are the friends, neighbours and colleagues of others.

What I do know from my work is that there is always a history when there is a murder of a woman – a trail of red flags too often ignored or minimised. Murder is not an entry-level crime. The potential murderers are hiding in plain sight among us, building up to their crimes, believing they are justified, leaving a trail of clues all around.

The clues might not always be what we imagine, but they are there if we know what to look for. One glaring red flag we always deny and excuse is domestic abuse. Perpetrators of domestic abuse are overrepresented in all violent crimes, including murder, even mass murder and terrorism.

Male violence to women – whether those women are wives, girlfriends, friends, or sex workers; whether the violence is enjoyed through pornography, meted out in online abuse, or talked about in so-called incel groups; whether it is through sexual harassment or predatory behaviours; whether it is the domestic control of women’s activities and lives or the policing of their sexual behaviour – these are all red flags that support, facilitate and normalise violence against women.

If the tragic events of this week become Ireland’s watershed moment, don’t let it wane and die, hold on to the outrage and the anger.

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When the inevitable safety advice is handed down to women, don’t be deflected but turn the lens back to the offenders, demand the relentless pursuit of perpetrators, change the conversation, change the focus, and hold them to account before we are mourning the loss of another young woman.

Jane Monckton Smith is Professor of Public Protection at the University of Gloucestershire with a specialism in homicide. She works with police and others in cases of homicide, coercive control and stalking. Her most recent book In Control: dangerous relationships and how they end in murder explains her work in creating the ”Homicide Timeline’ that shows how and why homicide risk may be escalating in cases of coercive control and stalking.

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Jane Monckton Smith

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