Women’s Rights as Human Rights: Local and Global Perspectives Strategies and Analyses from the ICCL Working Conference on Women’s Rights as Human Rights (Dublin, March 1997) Edited by Niamh Reilly
Violence Against Women: The Irish Context By Monica O’Connor
On January 7th 1996 the body of Marilyn Rynn was found on a wasteland in Dublin near her home. She had been raped and strangled. The following Sunday, Independent Newspapers ran a feature article on her murder, headed "Betrayal by the Cause", the cause in question being the Irish Women’s Movement of the 1970s which in this journalist’s opinion had led to "the absurdity that young women believe they can wear what they like, go where they like, say what they like and do what they like and always be understood in sexual terms by men".
She goes on to say that "Women’s behaviour no longer sends out clear signals. Girls can no longer be categorised as good or bad. That’s dangerous for women"
What is dangerous for women are the views expressed by this journalist (which are unfortunately, commonly held views in this country) that women’s behaviour can be used to justify physical and sexual violence by men and secondly that the challenge made by the women’s movement to men are in some way responsible for the rape and murder of women.
It seems to me that the first principle of bodily integrity and security of person for women is the right to wear what we like, go where we like, say what we like and do what we like without fear of male violence and to negotiate as autonomous human beings our own sexual terms with a man or a woman as we choose. This is not an absurdity but an aspiration and a legitimate demand of all women.
Sexual harassment, assault, rape, battering, prostitution, sex trafficking and pornography are daily realities in the lives, minds and consciousness of all women. Feminist human rights activists have clearly demonstrated that, in the words of Lori Heise, "This is not random violence. . . . The risk factor is being female." Most violence occurs in the context of the abuse and maintenance of power by one individual or group over another. It is usually a deliberate intentional means of control. It seems to me political activists have no problem seeing this clearly in an oppressive regime such as the old apartheid regime in South Africa, where violence was clearly a necessary and inevitable tool for the dominant white group to maintain political and economic control.
It does not mean that every individual white South African had to use violence, but it did demand their complicity, collusion, silence and it meant that the benefit accrued to them as the dominant group was welcomed, despite the fact that many could say at a personal level "I abhor the use of violence".
When it comes to gender-based violence, we would rather believe in random acts perpetrated by individual men against individual women, "the monsters and victim" mentality, rather than acknowledge that violence against women, as in any other situation of inequality and injustice, is clearly about the maintenance of power and control, in this case male power and the patriarchy, that it is systematic, endemic and deliberate enabling men in the private and the public arena to control all women physically, psychologically and sexually.
What feminist activists have succeeded in doing is to bring this analysis into international human rights discourse and to demonstrate that violence against women is inevitable as long as the historical inequality between men and women continues. Therefore, removing the political, economic and cultural structures which oppress women is, in the long term, the only way to eradicate male violence.
The fact that so many gross violations of women’s human rights have occurred in the private world of intimate relationships with men and in the family, or in so called "chosen" contractual arrangements between client and prostitute or woman and pornographer have allowed the UN, national governments and international human rights agencies to ignore these abuses and evade responsibility.
Women’s human rights lawyers have actively demonstrated the collusion and even endorsement by international and state law, the judiciary and the police, churches and social and cultural institutions with the abuse of women. There have been many examples in this country over the past years. For example, we have seen the disclosure of widespread sexual abuse in the family and Church Institutions with the knowledge and silence of both State and Church.
We have also witnessed the consistent failure of the criminal justice system adequately to punish perpetrators in crimes of male domestic violence and rape, such as in the following cases:
- Vinnie O’Connell found guilty of four charges of assault on women, two of whom he attempted to strangle. The judges comments were that he was "a personable well dressed man who was holding down a job" and that he was setting him free as long as he went to another jurisdiction because the women he had assaulted were in such a state of fear. So much for the Irish judiciaries concern for the human rights of women in other jurisdictions.
- The famous X case, where the sentence was halved because, in the words of the judge, "he was a good family man". This was the man who over a period of her life from the age of eleven to fourteen had raped his daughter’s friend.
Finally, since Marilyn Rynn’s death, nineteen* more women have been murdered and two are still missing in this state.
- The case of Levinnia Kerwick who, now critically ill, was raped by her boyfriend and sought justice through the courts. The judge commented that the rape was not pre-meditated and the man walked free. It seems that in this case the relationship between the offender and the victim was seen as more pertinent than the nature of the crime itself of rape.
Following a global campaign by women’s human rights activists, the Irish government became (along with many more governments) a signatory to the UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women. But moving the Irish government from signing to action is going to depend on the strength of the Irish Women’s Movement against Violence Against Women.
For those of us who work in services – such as rape crisis centres, refuges and Women’s Aid – dealing with the reality of violence in Irish women’s lives, it is crucial that we gain strength from the international women’s human rights movement and use the gains we have made at United Nations level to hold the Irish government and the institutions of the Irish state accountable for crimes of violence against women.
Monica O’Connor is Training and Research Officer at Women’s Aid, Dublin.
*On the date of the conference this was the statistic on female homicide in the Republic of Ireland. In the three months following this alone, four more women had been murdered.