Politics

‘Ashling Murphy was just going for a run. Tomorrow, some other woman will be just going home’

Ashling Murphy was doing what countless other people in Ireland also did yesterday, mostly without giving it a second thought. On a bright, clear January afternoon, in an achingly beautiful part of the country, she was going for a run.

The fact that this luminous young woman will never come home is an unfathomable tragedy, made sharper by the sheer ordinariness of her actions yesterday afternoon, and the fact that her route brought her along Fiona’s Way, named in honour of missing woman Fiona Pender.

She came home from her job as a primary school teacher. She decided to go for a run. By teatime, she was dead.

Little is known about what happened in between, or – as yet – the circumstances of her death. So soon afterwards is not a time to cast about for simplistic answers or people to blame.

But the unavoidable truth of the matter is that it is not, by and large, women who are murdering or assaulting other women, or indeed men. It does not need to be stated (though inevitably the hashtags started shortly after the first reports emerging, so I will put it on record again) that not all men are predators. The overwhelming majority are good and decent and every bit as horrified and angry as women were to hear the news late yesterday evening. Let’s take that as read. Don’t make this about you.

So not all men are predators, but all women know that they are potentially prey. This knowledge permeates many of our lives and curtails our choices in ways that may be difficult for men to understand.

The background thrum of anxiety most women feel about their personal safety limits our freedom in lots of tiny, imperceptible ways, and a few bigger ones. The calculations we make. The semi-conscious risk assessments we carry out daily. The route we take home. The time of day we leave the house alone. The seat we choose on the bus. The ‘just checking in’ calls we make from the back of taxis.

Even those of us who are resolutely unafraid still feel the need to declare it. It’s interesting that no man ever says: “I jog alone all the time and I’ve never had a bad experience.”

All of this is what women mean when we say the threat of male violence shrinks our world.

Crimes in which women go out and do not come home again are, thankfully, rare. Crimes in which women go home and do not come out again are unfortunately much less so. All forms of violence against women – violence at the hands of a total stranger, a brief acquaintance, or an intimate partner – happen far too often.

One in three women in the EU has experienced physical and/or sexual violence since the age of 15, according to a 2014 EU-wide survey. In one in five cases, the perpetrator is an intimate partner.

Women’s Aid has kept a record of the violent deaths of women in Ireland since 1996. The total number of women killed since then is 244. Of resolved cases, 87 per cent were perpetrated by a man known to the victim, and 13 per cent died at the hands of a stranger.

And yet we still insist on treating incidents in which women are assaulted or murdered as a random series of horrifying but disconnected tragedies, instead of a phenomenon that needs to be tackled with collective action. That starts with regarding violence against women as the emergency it is.

Some people on social media are talking today again about how women need to take precautions, and how parents should teach their daughters self-defence or warn their children to, as one presumably well-meaning man put it, “never separate from the crowd.”

There is talk, too, about which areas are safe to run or walk alone in, and which are not. These are understandable responses, but they fall into the trap of viewing violence against women as though it is an unstoppable force of nature, as opposed to a man-made phenomenon.

Telling girls or women that it’s up to them to take precautions legitimises the idea that our best weapon is to live in fear. It lets everyone, and everything, else off the hook – including legislators, the criminal justice system, the tech firms who monetise online hate, the education system, the parents and good men who don’t see themselves as part of this problem.

It means we don’t have to have hard conversations about the kind of society and culture we live in – a society in in which the full spectrum of violence against women, from low-level online harassment at one end, to extreme physical violence at the other, is at risk of being normalised.

What we need in the coming days and weeks is less shock and horror from politicians, and more talk about what a joined-up strategy to tackle gender-based violence, which starts in primary schools and permeates every aspect of society from online platforms to the criminal justice system, might look like.

Ashling Murphy was just going for a run. Tomorrow, next week or next month, some other woman will be just going home. Or just getting the bus. Or just having a night out. Or just getting into bed. Platitudes are not going to keep them safe.

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