In Depth

Ashling Murphy: the calls for change to protect women in Ireland

Minister to publish strategy to end violence against women as experts highlight need for cultural change

The killing of a 23-year-old schoolteacher in Tullamore, County Offaly has led to calls from across the Republic of Ireland and the UK for greater efforts to be made to ensure women’s safety.

Ashling Murphy was murdered while jogging along the banks of the town’s Grand Canal on the afternoon of 12 January. Her death has “united the country in grief and in support”, Bishop Tom Deenihan said at her funeral this week, which was attended by Ireland’s President Michael D Higgins and Taoiseach Micheal Martin.

Murphy’s former pupils were among the hundreds of mourners who filled the streets outside St Brigid’s Church in Mountbolus.

Thousands of people have attended vigils in memory of the young woman. The Murphy family were said to be “appreciative and overwhelmed by the national outpouring of support shown to them”, according to a statement from the Gardai earlier this week. A 31-year-old man has been charged with Murphy’s murder. 

“We cannot allow such violence and disregard for both human life and bodily integrity to take root in our time and culture,” said Deenihan, the Bishop of Meath, during Tuesday’s service.

Murphy’s cousin Rachel O’Shea also read a prayer asking that “the many vigils that took place in memory of Ashling mark the beginning of an end to violence against women”, the Irish Examiner reported. 

‘Step forward’ from tragedy

“Nearly every major step forward in modern Irish history has its roots in tragedy,” said imam and chair of the Irish Muslim Peace & Integration Council Shaykh Dr Umar al-Qadri in The Irish Times. “Tragedy has once more provided us with a focus and sense of purpose for social change that goodwill alone could not.”

Speaking in parliament this week, the Taoiseach said that the government’s response “was clear”, said the paper. “We want and need a zero-tolerance approach to violence against women and this will require all of us, as a society, to commit to lasting change.” 

The Department of Justice has been working for the past 12 months on a new domestic, sexual, gender-based violence strategy, led by the Minister for Justice, Helen McEntee.

McEntee has said that new criminal offences for stalking and non-fatal strangulation will be included in a bill that is set to be published before Easter. Speaking in the Dail this week, she said changes to existing legislation will “make the law clearer and stronger”. 

She hoped that these changes will “encourage victims to come forward and report what has happened to them”. But she acknowledged that despite this progress, safety issues would persist: “I cannot stand here today and say that no woman will suffer at the hands of a man tonight”. 

A survey by the European Union in 2014 reported that one in four women in Ireland had experienced physical and/or sexual violence since the age of 15. The report noted that gender-based violence is “systematically underreported”, though the number of incidents recorded against both men and women during the pandemic had increased.

The increased demand for support for women during the pandemic has highlighted some positive points of progress. The executive director of Rape Crisis Network Ireland, Cliona Saidlear, told BBC News NI that the pandemic allowed for collaboration “across the statutory and the NGO sector”, working “really closely” to respond to the crisis.

“What we have learned there is that it has to be a collaborative effort,” she continued. And while it’s “important to have a ‘checklist’ of changes with agencies and professions”, said the BBC, the “bigger picture” needs to be addressed too.

“We need to think big – because what we are actually doing here is to transform the culture, we are trying to socially engineer our whole culture out of a habit of generations into something new,” Dr Saidlear continued.

Women’s Aid Ireland chief executive Sarah Benson told the broadcaster that Murphy’s murder “has really shaken every woman and every teenage girl”, but there was a feeling of “momentum” for change now. 

“We must focus on the behaviour and attitudes of perpetrators of violence in order to dismantle them and work with men as allies in order to model healthy, respectful behaviours.” 

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