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Reporting on men’s violence against women matters

Published: Monday, September 05, 2016

The horrific murders of Clodagh Hawe and her children have brought devastation to her family, friends and the community in Cavan. NWCI expresses deepest sympathy for their loss.

In the days since the murders many of our members and individuals, women and men, have contacted NWCI, to express their anger and upset by some of the media coverage.

As a society we struggle to define men’s violence against women. Often, when a man kills his partner and even when he kills his partner and their children, we don’t name it as men’s violence against women. We often know more about the man than his victims, and the woman becomes invisible. Formulating our response to men’s violence against women in a manner that absolves the perpetrator is always wrong.

We must properly name the dynamics of domestic homicide, where men are the majority of perpetrators. Our culture which enables domestic abuse is one of shame, stigma and silence. We must clearly say that domestic violence and homicide is an act of violence, control and an assertion of power. Here, the media have a significant role to play. Men who choose to kill their partners should not be portrayed as equal victims. It is not okay to consider the apparent reasons for the murder(s) to be more important than the lives of those murdered.

The language used is so important, to individual women living in fear, but also to wider societal understandings of violence against women. Take the fact that it is always the children called innocent in these cases. When we call the children innocent and not the murdered partner, we imply some responsibility on her part. This isn’t mere semantics. How perpetrators and victims are portrayed has an impact on our understanding of an issue and more importantly has an impact on women living in vulnerable and dangerous circumstances.

Let’s look at the facts.  We know from Women’s Aid that half of all women murdered in Ireland are killed by a partner or ex-partner.  One in five women in Ireland will experience domestic abuse at the hands of a male partner.  Perpetrators are rarely held to account in courts, in communities and in the media. The structural causes of domestic violence are rarely fully exposed. Maintaining and reinforcing a culture of silence makes it harder for women to come forward, to speak about what is happening to them, to seek help and to report the abuse.

Understanding the nature of violence against women is crucial. Abuse between intimate partners takes many forms, there may not always be physical abuse. In some cases where women are killed there may be no reported history of physical violence, but her partner can use coercive power to control almost all aspects of her life.

The murder of women by their intimate partners and former partners is not inevitable. In failing to hold perpetrators to account and reinforcing a culture of silence we fail to accept that there is so much more that we can do to prevent violence against women.

Resources should now be ring fenced to undertake a thorough investigation into cases of domestic homicide to gain greater understanding of the patterns, the potential for identification of risk and early intervention. In addition the Irish Observatory on Violence Against Women, has requested funding, based on good practice internationally, to research and produce media guidelines for reporting on cases of men’s violence against women.

The Government have signed up to the Council of Europe Convention on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (Istanbul Convention), implementing the Convention in full would go a long way in changing culture and practise in how we address this issue.  We now need to prioritise resources to frontline services and the Gardai in order to provide women safety and protection and to hold perpetrators to account.

Orla O’Connor is Director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland and Chair of the Irish Observatory on Violence Against Women.

If you have been affected by this blog, or the murders in Cavan, please know you can call the Women's Aid National Freephone Helpline 24 hours a day, 1800 341 900.