It’s been a difficult week for many hearing the devastating stories of two women, one in London, the other in Dublin. The woman in Dublin, a pensioner, saw her attacker jailed for six years after she survived a horrendous assault while out walking early one morning. Sarah Everard, a young woman murdered in London, went missing last week while walking home from a friend’s home.

These two shocking crimes against women have again brought the issue of gender-based violence into sharp focus, with women on both sides of the Irish Sea sharing their stories of everyday harassment and abuse. In Ireland today, the Citizens’ Assembly on Gender Equality (the Assembly) will meet Gender-Based Violence. Here, Noeline Blackwell of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre outlines her views on yet another tough week for women…

DUBLIN RAPE CRISIS Centre exists because 42 years ago a small dedicated band of women recognised the frightening prevalence of rape and other sexual abuse.

Their project was informed both by certain horrific rapes and other sexual abuse of the time, but also a prevailing spirit where women, in their thousands, were demonstrating on the streets of Dublin and other cities around the world, about their right to reclaim the night, to assert their right to walk where they wanted, to dress as they wanted, without the fear of physical or sexual assault. 

More than four decades later, and in the light of the truly tragic killing of Sarah Everard in London, it is shocking to be reminded that women and girls are still so uniquely vulnerable to violence, and particularly sexual violence.

In a survey in November 2016, people across Europe were asked to say whether some circumstances could excuse non-consensual sex with a woman. The usual broad excuses were suggested: a woman’s intoxication, her provocative dress or her behaviour.

Yes, you read correctly: Some people thought that victim behaviour justified rape. But walking alone at night was also seen as a legitimate excuse for rape by 7% of Irish (and EU) respondents. Given that over 1,000 Irish people took part, that means at least 70 Irish people saw women out walking alone at night as ‘fair game’. 

Archaic attitudes

That such attitudes persist means that we still have massive work to do as a society. It is quite striking how women and girls, no matter where they live, grow up knowing that they are at additional risk in the world; that they must take all the usual precautions and then add another layer of risk assessment.

Women don’t usually even mention the security measures they take just to be in this world  – to walk on the street, to visit a friend. So when they reveal the things they do just to try to feel safe, it is a real learning moment.

Because boys and young men for the most part don’t even realise that girls and women do this. If they do, many males feel outraged that they in turn could be considered a risk to those women and girls because of their gender.

This leads to complacent responses such as the trending #NotAllMen hashtag. Yes, of course, people accept that #NotAllMen engage in sexual violence – rape, other sexual assault and harassment – but clearly, some do. And many others fall back on society’s acceptance of stereotypes of gender which actually facilitate this harm continuing.

We have seen this week examples of stranger violence that have had the most serious impact possible on women. However, the reality is that most sexual violence is perpetrated by someone known to the victim.

Often that person is seen by others as a respectable member of their community – there will be pressure not to report a family member or an upstanding person in the business community.

Often the behaviour will be excused on the grounds that this is what society expects of each gender. The victim may fear the consequences. Or sometimes, because of the intrusion into their life, because of the constant need to rehearse the traumatic experience for investigators, because of delays in our systems, victims may simply give up on reporting the crime done to them. 

All roads lead to here

So we have a perfect storm. We have a world in which sexual violence of all sorts has been seen as something to be hidden, not discussed, and definitely not punished. We have vulnerable victims who have suffered the most intimate abuse possible, potentially visible to those who can read the signs of that trauma, but not generally recognised or accommodated.

We have young people growing up without talking about or thinking about how respect for another human being involves recognising their equality, whatever their gender. And we have a defensive mindset that treats as personal attacks any attempts to start real, sustained conversations about that equality.

Change is happening. I particularly salute all those who choose to set aside their rights to privacy and disclose their personal stories so as to challenge our systems, structures and mindsets. I also salute all those who will not accept casual harassment and assault, who refuse to stand by, and who call it out at personal risk to themselves. And I salute those engaged in institutional change, recognising our systems were never designed for and do not best serve victims of sexual violence.

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But we could and can do more. I know hashtags are meant to be pithy, but is there any space for #NotAllMenButI’dLikeToBePartOfTheSolution? Or maybe this is simpler: #EndGenderViolence to achieve #GenderEquality.

Noeline Blackwell is Chief Executive Officer of Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. Anyone who has been affected by sexual violence at any time can call the 24-hour National Helpline 1800 77 8888 for support and information.