When women in fear live every day with a plan



Four years ago when she was 15, Helen’s friend, a year older, enticed her into his house, when his parents were out. After some small talk he pounced on her and attempted to remove her clothing. Helen, thankfully, managed to fend off her attacker and flee.

Her mother, a lone parent, confronted the boy’s parents in no uncertain terms after her daughter came home in tears, shocked and dishevelled. The attack was not reported. “It would have been his word against mine,” Helen tells me. “Who would they believe?”

Dee is my age. Married in the Seventies, she lived in Paris. “On the Metro, men were exposing themselves. My friend was stalked for two years. A lot of women were harassed. It was a nightmare.”

Dee has lived on her own since her divorce. Her son and two grandsons live in London. She is in rural Ireland. “Am I afraid living on my own? Often I am scared to answer the door. Often it is men saying tiles are missing on my roof and they’ll fix it. They see I am an elderly woman on my own and want to take advantage.”

Recently Dee was having her car serviced. “In the garage, the salesman, about 50, was fiddling with his phone. ‘Come ‘ere, look at this,’ he said and pointed his phone at me. ‘What do you think of that, eh?’ He was laughing, this face flushed. It was pornography on his phone.”

Meadhbh is 38. “Cases like we’ve heard of in the last weeks are a reminder of the collective threat and valid fear women the world over live with. It’s always there, underneath, some days even subconsciously — a quickened pace, an averted gaze, a fake phone call. Anytime you have a ‘strange’ taxi man you feel it, or get caught in the dark somewhere.

“The worst part is we grow up almost with acceptance, it’s second nature, to always be on your guard,” she tells me. “Stories like Ashling Murphy are a timely reminder how real those threats can be.

“The good men, most men, need to be part of helping change the threat, the culture. It starts with refusing to laugh at stupid jokes; it starts with stamping out cat calling. There’s a long way to go.”

This writer has talked to many other women the past days, in light of the murder of Ashling Murphy at 23. Shockingly, it is the case that, of all the women I asked, all have ‘a plan’. The ‘fear’ is always a low hum beneath the rhythm of their regular life, implanted in early teenage years. Although, statistically, violent crime is committed on men more than women — 70% to 30% — women are more afraid. “You’re afraid a strange man will attack you,” says Helen who is doing her Leaving Cert this year.

So, women don’t run at night. Women don’t park in an out-of-sight car park. Women don’t enter a lift already occupied by a single man in an unfamiliar building. Women don’t leave a party without their friends.

The Dublin Rape Crisis Centre dealt with 13,367 calls in 2020, the latest figures available. Three in four were from females. Of those who disclosed their details, 44.8% said they had been raped, while 33% were victims of childhood sexual abuse.

Almost a quarter of Irish women avoid certain streets for fear of being assaulted or harassed, according to a recent EU study. The study by the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency shows 23% of Irish women “deliberately stay away from particular locations often or all the time to reduce the risk of attack”. Ireland’s finding is the second highest among the 27 states after Greece at 29%.

The figure is even more pronounced among Irish women aged 16 to 29 with 45% taking such action “to avoid being attacked either physically or verbally”.

A young woman, who reported a rape and is awaiting a trial in the case, says she has a “nightmare” about her choice in underwear being submitted in evidence by the defence. “I am terrified. What are they going to do to me in court?” she says.

“Every day women live with the fear,” says Ella. “It’s not paralysing but it’s omnipresent — whether out walking alone or, when pubs were open, asking a friend to watch your drink while you go to the loo. Women feel like ‘it’s all my fault if something happens to me’.”

Ella turned 21 in December. She has her whole life ahead of her.

Will she always need ‘a plan’?

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