Society can cut domestic and sexual violence


SECOND OPINION: People’s attitudes may exacerbate gender-based abuse, writes JACKY JONES

THE National Office for the Prevention of Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence (Cosc) has produced new media guidelines which explain the kind of news coverage that actually increases perpetration of violence and victim-blaming, including some recent news items and headlines. Last week the Sunday World published a 12 page pull-out section on “Monsters in Our Midst” which described the violent sexual crimes committed by several men soon to be released from prison. Labelling these men as monsters does no favours to their victims, families or society.

Domestic violence and sexual crimes are always about the abuse of power by the perpetrator, and the experience of powerlessness by the victim. Portraying perpetrators as monsters contributes to the myth that these men are more powerful than other men: superhuman fairy tale ogres. They are not. The perpetrators of domestic and sexual violence are ordinary men who have committed terrible crimes. Calling them monsters feeds into a twisted macho mythology which encourages more men to become perpetrators.

“Monster” labels confuse victims of less extreme forms of domestic violence, who do not see their abusive partners as monsters, and it leads to minimisation and denial. “Well, he’s okay a lot of the time, he’s just a bit tight with money, he calls me names but he’s a good dad.”

Children who observe domestic violence and other forms of abuse are five times more likely to become victims or perpetrators themselves. He is certainly not a good dad.

Articles that focus on the behaviour and experience of victims, and say little about perpetrators or bystanders, contribute to victim-blaming.

A man was recently charged with the murder of a woman, the mother of his two children, who was stabbed to death in her Dublin home. Media reports focused on how she returned to her own home, having secured a barring order. This woman had every reason to believe she was safe and the justice system should have ensured her safety.

There were no stories about why men ignore barring orders imposed by the courts – over 1,000 were breached last year – or whether safety, barring and protection orders work. No newspaper wrote about the Garda role in her barring order or the effectiveness of barring orders in general. Focusing on women returning home encourages victim-blaming.

In spite of years of awareness-raising, huge numbers of women still experience domestic, sexual and gender-based violence.

Expectations about how people should behave, and beliefs about gender roles and family privacy, contribute to the problem. Like it or not, anti-woman social norms are still alive and well in 21st century Ireland. According to a Centre for Gender Violence and Health, London, report in 2011, these norms include: “A man has a right to assert power over a woman and is considered socially superior; physical violence is an acceptable way to resolve conflict in a relationship; intimate partner abuse is a taboo subject; and a man has a right to physically discipline a woman for ‘incorrect’ behaviour.”

Anyone who scoffs at the idea that these social norms operate should consult the latest CSO and OECD figures which show women in Ireland are still treated as inferior humans.

They spend more than twice as much time on domestic duties as men, they are 58 times more likely to be looking after home and family, only 15 per cent of TDs are women and one-fifth of members of local authorities are women.

Changing social and cultural norms is part of the solution to the problem of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. Weak community responses and sanctions are another risk factor.

Although a majority of Irish people are aware of the problem most are reluctant to become involved. These bystanders are afraid to intervene or think their intervention will make things worse. They, in effect, collude with perpetrators and increase victim powerlessness. Cosc wants a greater media focus on bystanders, including anyone who knows this abuse and violence is happening and does nothing about it, including bishops, neighbours, relatives and BBC personnel.

Domestic, sexual and gender-based violence is a whole of society problem and Cosc deserves support for what it is doing.

Dr Jacky Jones is a former HSE regional manager of health promotion

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