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Ashling Murphy’s death is inexcusable – we must do more to protect women

Lauren Agnew

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The tragic death of Ashling Murphy has prompted an outpouring of grief. Vigils have been held across the island of Ireland and women – in Ireland and beyond – have once again been left reeling at the sex-based violence on their doorstep. Ashling was a young teacher who was ‘just going for a run’ along the banks of the Grand Canal outside Tullamore, County Offaly, when she was assaulted and murdered. As both a woman and a runner, this haunts me.

I often choose to run whilst it’s still bright outside. I choose regular routes – often along the local river path – but occasionally I mix it up too. You don’t want to be too predictable. Habits can be dangerous if the wrong person notices them. I make these choices automatically and they are indicative of the society we live in. A society where women must choose to exercise at certain times because exercising at night could see them become another statistic.

The protest cry ‘She was just going for a run’ has gained much traction on social media in the wake of Ashling’s death. It’s similar to another slogan that did the rounds last year, after the rape and murder of Sarah Everard: ‘She was just walking home’. This narrative is something women can easily identify with. It makes us think how it could have happened to us. It also makes us angry. No woman should feel unsafe walking around in our country.

The reality in the case of Ashling Murphy, Sarah Everard, and so many other women victims is that it doesn’t matter what they were doing. It doesn’t matter where they were, what time it was, or what they were wearing. There is no excuse for what happened to them. No blame can be attributed to the victims, who were simply going about their lives. When we are considering these crimes, the emphasis must be on the motive of the perpetrators, and how they can be stopped.

Ashling Murphy’s murder has brought sex-based violence into the spotlight, yet again. For now, her name is a trending hashtag, but how many hashtags do there need to be, how many women need to be attacked or murdered in our communities, before we take steps to address the problem? We need serious work at many levels of society to address the egregious problem of violence against women and girls – a problem that only seems to be getting worse.

This work will, crucially, require men. Men must be willing to admit that this is a specifically male problem and hold members of their own sex to account. This is not to say that all men are violent. Of course, they aren’t. But men will see firsthand the objectification of women – the ‘locker room’ chat – that can lead, ultimately, to harmful behaviours. And they will see the excuses made by men when they encounter violence, sexual or otherwise. Men must be prepared to challenge this, robustly.

Tackling violence against women and girls requires understanding the many factors behind it. At CARE, we have spent several years looking at one of these in detail – pornography. Research has shown a relationship between the consumption of pornography and sexist attitudes and sexually aggressive behaviour towards women. Violent sexual crimes, and incidents of harassment and abuse in schools and wider society are often inspired by porn. It’s time we started recognizing this.

There are two things on the political horizon that could lead to better recognition of the dangers of porn and action to curb it, in order to protect women and girls. At the end of last year, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Commercial Sexual Exploitation announced an official investigation into the pornography industry. The APPG noted that porn addiction has been implicated in several murders, including the case of Sarah Everard, and highlighted concerns expressed by various experts.

The six-month inquiry will take evidence from a range of international experts, with MPs set to assess how the modern-day pornography industry operates, harms associated with the production and consumption of pornography, and the adequacy of existing laws. In this inquiry, MPs have a real chance to demonstrate the link between pornography and sexual violence and recommend changes in law and policy.

The Government also has an opportunity to enact better regulation of pornography through its online safety regime. As currently drafted, the plans do not go far enough. It is imperative that all sites are brought under the scope of the upcoming Online Safety Bill and that pornography is listed as a specific harm. We also strongly believe the plans should see the appointment of a regulator to force sites hosting ‘extreme’ porn that glorifies sexual violence to take this content down.

In the inquiry on pornography and the online safety regime, politicians have an opportunity to legislate for positive change – change that will help reduce sexual violence. Better regulation of pornography will confront a driver of sexual violence head on. For the sake of women like Ashling Murphy, and all women and girls in our society, Parliament must act.

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