Irish Times

Monday, July 02, 2001

VIOLENCE AND GENDER

Letter to the Editor by ISOBEL BUTLER
Irish Times

Sir, - The interim finding of Dr McKeown and colleagues (The Irish Times, June 13th) that women were much more likely than men to inflict violence on their spouses, and their comment that this is in line with international studies, are troubling.

Many Irish and international studies - e.g., Kelleher and O'Connor (1999), McWilliams and Spence (1996), Dobash &Dobash (1996), Casey (1987) - established a completely different pattern, with men as the aggressors in the vast majority of cases.

On a similar topic in your columns last year (September 27th), Prof Monica McWilliams, quoting from the British Home Office report Government Policy around Domestic Violence (1996) wrote, and it bears repeating: "The Government recognises that women are more likely to experience domestic violence at some point in their lives, more likely to experience repeat victimisation, more likely to be injured and to seek help, more likely to experience frightening threats, and more likely to be frightened and upset."

In the 1995-1998 period, of the murders of the 27 women which had been solved or awaiting trial, more than half were committed by a current or former partner and all by men (Kelleher &O'Connor ,1999). Is like being compared with like here? If so, we should have seen approximately 25 men murdered by their partners or former partners in the period.

Kelleher and O'Connor, on the contrary, report that two women were charged with the murder of their male partners and in both cases "a history of domestic violence against the woman was introduced as evidence in court" and "that this is consistent with international literature, which shows that when women murder they are likely to be responding to years of physical and sexual abuse".

That report also documented, as do others, a history of serious physical aggression against women, including many stabbings or threats of stabbing. Research also indicates that a significant number of assaulted pregnant women had a miscarriage as a result. In their 1991 study, McKeown and Gilligan found that the majority of sexual abuse of children was intra-familial, overwhelmingly fathers being the abusers.

In 25 years of involvement in marital breakdown, in a voluntary organisation from 1976 to 1990 and for the past 10 years as a family lawyer, my experience is that to a great extent violence or intimidation and threats of violence is a male weapon against women and children and women who experience it cannot continue in the relationship. Generally, where counselling was a viable option, clients did not experience serious personal threats or worse. Where violence is an issue husbands usually refuse to attend counselling or mediation. Is this the reason that the woman is the partner who instigates legal proceedings for divorce or separation?

Dr McKeown and colleagues acknowledge that the severity, context, reasons or initiation of the violence is not evident from the material. I trust that the final report will clarify this further and the discrepancies raised. It would be regrettable indeed if a report to establish the usefulness of counselling in troubled marriages, where like is not equated with like, could be used as a weapon against women who have already suffered more than enough. - Yours, etc.,

ISOBEL BUTLER, Solicitor, Blackrock, Co Dublin.

© 2001 ireland.com