CEO of Women's Aid Sarah Benson spoke to Claire Byrne following the murder of 23-year old primary school teacher and musician Ashling Murphy. After offering heartfelt condolences to Ashling's family and friends, Sarah addressed the wider context and the possible solutions to male violence.
Sarah drew on decades of work by Women’s Aid in the domestic violence sphere in illuminating the context of recent tragic events. Firstly, Sarah says male-on-female murder is at the extreme end of a spectrum which starts with everyday misogyny. Secondly, she says the fact that women are unsafe in some locations is not the fault of the place, but of the perpetrators who choose to assault and kill them there. Finally, Sarah says that men are affected by male violence too, and that being a strong ally of women will ultimately make the world safer for everyone.
Sarah says women can feel unsafe any time, in any location:
"The reality is that women don’t feel safe, often in any public place: whether it is in broad daylight in crowded spaces, let alone in those kind of stereotypical 'darkened alley’ scenarios."
The extent of women’s fear of violence at any time of day or night was highlighted in the aftermath of last year’s kidnapping, rape and murder of Sarah Everard by a Metropolitan Police officer. The officer used his police ID to "arrest" her; further undermining trust in public safety. There was a massive response to Sarah's murder in the UK, Sarah Benson says:
"There was a huge outpouring of expressions by women of that experience, which goes almost, appallingly, from cradle to grave, in that sense of where men may feel safe and comfortable in certain environments; when you look at it through the lens of a women’s experience, all of those kind of internalised fears do manifest themselves. From everything to that thing where women will talk about holding their keys on their own when they are walking on their own."
The Women’s Aid CEO says that it would be a mistake not to build on the consciousness raised by a tragedy to try and make things better for women. Sarah Benson says the emphasis shouldn't be on actions women can take; rather the focus needs to be on eliminating negative attitudes to women. She says the line from everyday sexism to murder is real:
"We can’t look at what women can do to stay safe; we can’t look at the places where these appalling acts are perpetrated, because they actually are irrelevant. What we need to focus on are the behaviours and attitudes; even from the most casual sexism, which does accumulate – and there is strong research to show this – in the most egregious forms of male violence against women and this is an example of that. We can’t squander the huge potential that these women have lost by not making sure that we make our society and our community safer."
Sarah Benson says that it is not acceptable that women have to remove themselves from certain places and activities, just because of a consistent threat level. Sarah says there is another way of looking at it:
"Why on earth should that be the case? It shouldn’t be about the places. And this is what we would emphasise in our decades of work to combat male violence against women and working with thousands upon thousands of women is that it’s not the places; it’s who might be in those places."
Difficult questions have to be asked about the frequency of male violence, Sarah Benson says. This violence arises as part of the water we are swimming in, and that starts with everyday sexism, outdated ideas about what a woman is, and new forms of oppression and objectification:
"We need to hone in with laser focus on the perpetrators. What has led to the point where a man feels entitled to act out with such aggression, such fatal aggression towards a woman? As I say, there is a broad spectrum. This is at the very extreme end, but it is all informed by misogynistic, sexist stereotypes, the sexualisation of young women."
When it comes to solutions, both sexes can work together, Sarah says:
"We need to work, men and women as allies on this. There can be a dissent in this on the part of some men sometimes when things like this happen. We need to set that aside and go look, the vast majority of violence against both men and women is perpetrated by men. With women, there is a very distinct gendered stereo type that feeds into that, so of course, ‘not all men’, but we need to work from the very earliest stages with our boys, with our girls around principles of equality, of mutuality, because that’s the only way we’re going to get rid of that culture of fear."
There are huge benefits to everyone in taking this approach, she says:
"A gender equal society is one that is better for men and women alike, which also will surely contribute to the reduction of male violence against men, because it is allowing that much more positive representation of masculinity, one that’s not predicated on old tired stereotypes, which unfortunately still prevail."
Equality and safety are values to aspire to, but in the wake of the senseless killing of the young Tullamore woman Ashling Murphy, the current situation was summed up by Barry Cowan TD, the representative for Laois-Offaly; who also spoke to Claire on the topic:
"I can go for a walk. I am a man. I feel safe. Women don’t. That’s not equality."
You can listen back to the full item, which includes a report by Brian O’Connell, and conversations with Sarah Benson, CEO of Women’s Aid with Barry Cowan, TD for Laois-Offaly here.