Someone once said ‘every cloud has a silver lining’, but a silver lining may be difficult to come by if you are a woman survivor of male violence. However, yesterday was the first time I came away from a conference on ending violence against women feeling genuinely optimistic. A huge task I know, and a long journey, but glimmers of hope where shared by the courageous, forward thinking speakers.
Of the speakers at the ICGBV’s ‘Moving Beyond Fear’ conference I was particularly impressed by Tom Meagher. Tom’s wife Jill was murdered in Australia in 2012 and in just two years he has become a courageous advocate for ending male violence against women. His stance that men need to take responsibility for their role in ending violence struck a chord with me. His other position, which was a common theme from all the speakers, was on how societal and state attitudes on violence against women need to change for women to gain universal access to justice.
Jill Meagher’s murderer, a convicted serial rapist, had received very lenient sentences because the courts didn’t value the lives of his previous victims, who were prostitutes. He was out on parole when he murdered Jill. Tom maintains that if all women were treated equally by the justice system his wife would still be alive today.
Fiona Sampson, founder of the Equality Effect, led a campaign in Kenya called The 160 Girls Project to help women and girls who had been raped within their own communities, to access justice. The police in Kenya were responsible for the climate of impunity by not prosecuting perpetrators of sexual violence. When the girls went to the police they were told that they ‘were too pretty’, ‘they must have encouraged it’ or ‘enjoyed it’; and in some cases the girls were raped again by the police.
Claudia Paz y Paz’s the former attorney general of Guatemala reported that in the past 10 years 6,000 women were victims of femicide in Guatemala and that the justice system simply dismissed these murders as a fact of life. She shared the historical context of violence against women in Guatemala, which is set against the backdrop of a three-decade long war, during which time violence against women escalated.
Each of the speakers challenged these injustices. In Australia, Tom led a campaign to hold the parole board accountable and since then parole laws have been introduced demanding more transparency and accountability. In Kenya the state was successfully sued forcing the government to enforce existing laws properly. In Guatemala, new laws were passed and four specialist courts were established specifically to prosecute crimes committed against women.
This is a good start – it shows that grassroots action can bring about real and positive change. While it is inspiring to see these shifts in patriarchal societies in concrete ways, these small steps need to expand globally to shift cultural attitudes that dismiss or minimise violence against women. For this journey to continue the attitudes of men towards women needs to fundamentally change.
This was another key point raised by Tom Meagher. That male violence against women cannot be just a distant legal issue but that men must become stakeholders in ending violence against women. He proposed that men need to re-examine and change the definitions of maleness and how masculinities are developed. He said, ‘We all have power, let’s use it with care and compassion rather than dominance and control’.
Mary Robinson reiterated Tom’s point that we need more men who have ‘thought a lot about male violence against women’ to move us and guide us on the issue; and summed up by saying that successful court cases not only boost the morale of the people affected but can mobilize the entire community. She ended by saying that access to justice is the most empowering outcome for a survivor of violence which can make a huge difference to the rest of their lives.
There is no single solution to male violence against women, which can have a devastating effect on women’s lives and is the only crime where it is often the victim who is put on trial rather than the perpetrator. With one-in-three women experiencing violence globally and one-in-four in Ireland (according to recent research conducted by FRA, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, 2014) it is clear that the issue of male violence against women will require innovative and long-term strategies for transformation. Globally, these strategies need to include the empowerment of women and girls through access to land and property rights, access to education, and access to reproductive rights. Further strategies should include implementing educational programmes that teach children and adults about gender equality and human rights; and mobilizing communities to effect change by consulting directly with them on solutions to the issue. However, a major stumbling block is that implementation of these strategies will need dedicated resources, in an area that has historically been under-resourced.
Ultimately though, I left the conference feeling hopeful. The persistence and determination of each of the speakers to challenge injustices and to overcome inequalities, was moving and inspiring. By outlining specific incidents of social impunity and approaches to reform unjust systems the conference summed up the following for me, that to end male violence against women we need:
A social and cultural transformation to create genuine equality between women and men.
To end the impunity of male perpetrators of violence against women. To develop gender sensitive justice systems.
As I left the conference and walked down Dawson Street the words of Rosamund Bennett, the Chair of the ICGBV, echoed in my mind ‘we are all agents of change’. I reflected on how all members of society need to be involved in the solution because each of us has an important role to play in creating communities where there is zero tolerance of male violence against women.