Righting the wrong that is violence against women

The findings in a survey by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights are jaw-dropping


At the Beyoncé concert in the O2 arena in Dublin on Saturday night, lyrics from the song Flawless , which samples Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, flashed across a giant screen. The biggest cheer went up when the word “feminist” came on the screen.

If anything captures the mainstreaming of a new wave of feminism, then hearing thousands of women cheering on the word at a pop concert on International Women’s Day is up there. Statistically, a quarter of those women cheering have been physically or sexually assaulted. Something is wrong.

The report published last week by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights gathered the experiences of 42,000 women in Europe, and the results are damning. Across Europe, one in three women have experienced sexual and/or physical abuse. In Ireland it’s 26 per cent.

On the front lines, many great people and organisations are working to help women when they are beaten or raped. But it feels as though our sense of the big picture is just a badly drawn sketch. Gender equality, women’s rights and feminism are talked about all the time, yet at the most basic everyday level we aren’t protecting women at all.

Scandinavian surprise
The comparative data in the report is fascinating, not least because it challenges perceptions about which countries are “good” or “bad” to be a woman in. In Denmark, a nation whose name, along with that of Norway and Sweden, is practically shorthand for ‘they do everything better’, the rate of violence is double that of Ireland. Sweden’s rate of rape is 47 in every 100,000, while in Croatia, Portugal and Slovakia it’s a mere three in 100,000.

What can you take from those numbers? Is it that Scandinavia is so enlightened that it’s more likely for rape and physical attacks to be reported, therefore representing the situation more truthfully? Does it mean that violence could actually also be a consequence of emancipation? Does it mean that women’s own definitions of what abuse is shrinks and expands from country to country?

Sweden is one of the most gender-egalitarian countries in the world. Parents are entitled to 480 days of parental leave when a child is born or adopted. Some 45 per cent of seats in the Swedish parliament are taken by women. Thirteen of their 24 ministers are women. This is a nation that on paper is doing everything right. Perhaps it is indeed that, as well as being socially progressive, they’re also ahead of the pack on reporting rape. As we pursue gender equality, are we ready for the truths such emancipation will reveal about our society? And how can we build social structures that are protective and kind to women as those truths are increasingly told?

Now that we have the figures on women, let’s get them on men. The solution to violence and rape against women lies with the perpetrators. If a sizeable minority of men in Ireland didn’t beat women up or rape them, then we wouldn’t be talking about this. Last year the UN surveyed 10,000 men in Asia on rape. Overall, a quarter admitted to committing at least one rape. In Papua New Guinea, that figure was 62 per cent, in China 22 per cent, Bangladesh 14 per cent, and so on. While it is highly likely that one abusive man will beat or rape more than one woman in his lifetime, we’re going to have confront the idea that if over a quarter of Irish women have been physically or sexually assaulted, up to a quarter of Irish men are violent abusers. What are we going to do about that? Well, the first thing is talk about it.

Ireland has a bizarre relationship with women. We celebrate Mná na hÉireann in so many ways, and are proud to bring intelligent women to the fore, as typified by the careers of Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese. We patronise Irish mammies in a celebratory “harmless” way. Yet Ireland has brutalised women as sexual beings, institutionalising and enslaving them as a warped form of penance and selling their babies, while the organisation running such shameful practices under the guise of a moral authority, the Catholic Church, was itself engaging in – and covering up – the sexual abuse of children on a terrifying scale. At least efforts have been made to right those wrongs.

Last week, International Women’s Day – a celebration that has gone from organised fun to something more expansive and meaningful – featured heavily in the media. But the report on violence against women in Europe makes even worthy celebration seem superficial.

How are we going to right the wrong of a quarter of our population being beaten and/or sexually assaulted because they are women? It’s not that Ireland doesn’t care about women, but maybe we’re just not caring about them in the right way.

A few politicians might shout about it, and the National Women’s Council will keep banging its drum, but that’s not enough. The findings in the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights survey are jaw-dropping. This is a full-blown crisis.

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