Older women on gender-based violence: ‘It’s too much to expect a sudden watershed moment’

Three women in their 70s speak about how violence against women has evolved over time

Former justice minister Nora Owen: ‘We also need to be sure that if women do become victims of assault, that every asset of the State is made available to their care.’  Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

Former justice minister Nora Owen: ‘We also need to be sure that if women do become victims of assault, that every asset of the State is made available to their care.’ Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

 

“We need to hear more men’s voices” in the discussion about violence against women, says former justice minister Nora Owen.

It’s rare, she points out, to hear men saying “I’m talking to my men friends and we’re going to have a conversation about this”. She say we need to hear men “calling out” inappropriate behaviour.

In the wake of the murder of Ashling Murphy, organisations representing taxi drivers, sports or social clubs dominated by men and the principals of boys’ schools all have a part to play to make society safer, she says. “We also need to be sure that if women do become victims of assault, that every asset of the State is made available to their care.”

The former Fine Gael TD is one of three women in their 70s who spoke to The Irish Times about how the phenomenon of violence against women has evolved over the decades.

In the 1970s and 1980s, “it was mainly domestic violence cases that would have been very rife,” says Owen.

“The laws are much better now and there’s much more awareness” but the one thing that hasn’t changed is that “human nature can be evil”.

However, low-level harassment was always a part of life for women. During her years in politics, “there would be language used and comments made, certain times when somebody said something you wished you they hadn’t said.”

Dr Chantelle McNamara was more aware than most women of her generation of the impact of gender-based violence.

The now-retired GP dispensed contraception before it was legal from her surgery in Waterford city, sometimes to victims of sexual assault. She remembers one distressed woman came looking for emergency contraception after she had been raped by two colleagues on a work trip.

“She was gay, and they came up to her room and raped her ‘to tell her what it was like’. Women who were assaulted couldn’t get contraception unless they came to people like me.”

An underground network of women looking out for each other directed those in need to her for “coils, sending women to England, the morning after pill, everything you could imagine. I was happy to do it.”

As a young registrar working in the Rotunda Hospital in Dublin, Dr McNamara assaulted by a medical student. “I was put up against a wall, and a student put his arms around me and wanted me to walk down the stairs and past the porters and go back to his apartment.” She raised her voice and another colleague heard her and intervened.

Women’s lives have improved immeasurably since, she believes. “There is an awful lot less judgement” towards women generally, and “women are very vocal” in saying they have had enough.

However, “there are lots of women who don’t have a voice. It is the privileged few who are saying stop.”

She would like to see confidence-building “and teaching women to be aware of our surroundings” in schools, while boys need to be taught to respect women and to intervene.

Ingrained

Retired teacher Sheelagh Coyle, recently saw firsthand how a potentially dangerous situation can be defused when another man speaks up. In her 70s, she still carries out many of self-protection measures familiar to women from 18 to 80 – locking her car from the inside; not walking after 9pm; texting to say she’s home safely. But her unsettling experience happened in a busy carriage on the Galway to Dublin train.

A man who seemed to be high on drugs got on in Tullamore. “He was announcing that he had just been let out of Portlaoise prison. He sits down beside me, puts his arm around me.”

Another man in his 60s sitting opposite spoke up. Very calmly, “he just said, ‘I wouldn’t move in on that woman.’ And then he indicated the seat opposite and the man actually obeyed and got up.”

He kept her aggressor talking until Coyle arrived at her station. “If I had been by myself in a very empty carriage. I don’t know what he would have done to me.”

She is unsure whether the murder of Ashling Murphy will change anything. “This stuff is so ingrained in some men, the attitude towards women that doesn’t see them as equals, I think it’s too much to expect that suddenly there is going to be a watershed moment.”