The murder of Concepta Leonard is a tragedy. A tragedy, and so much more than that.

She must have been terrified all the time, once she realised what kind of person he was, and how violent he could be.  He was, it turned out, a prolific abuser with a criminal record.

Connie had done everything right – she had left the relationship, contacted police, sought support from Women’s Aid, and got a non-molestation order which was due to be renewed the day after her murder. She did everything she possibly could to escape the domestic abuse she was being subjected to, and used all the legal tools available to her.  She must have been hopeful the current system would protect her and her son, Conor.

And yet, despite all this, she was killed by this abusive man, and her son was stabbed trying to protect her.

While this kind of murder is relatively uncommon in Northern Ireland, the intimate terrorism of women, even after they flee from violence, is not unusual at all. Last year, 29% of women in our refuges and 58% of women in our outreach services were seeking support and protection from their ex-partners.

Connie’s murder wasn’t the random act of an individual crazy man, or an inexplicable ‘isolated incident’, despite the typical media narrative that tends to emerge when a woman is killed by a current or former partner. Deaths like Connie’s are the devastating consequence of situations in which there is a motivated perpetrator, a vulnerable victim, and an absence of social guardianship. This is what can and will happen if our efforts to prevent and intervene in abuse fail.  This man murdered Concepta because he could, because he wanted to, and because there was nothing to prevent it and no one to stop him.

Hidden victims, hidden women

In the last week, Women’s Aid has been inundated by interest from local and regional media. While this is positive, it is in stark contrast to a normal day at the office. Because the majority of cases of domestic abuse are not deemed to be newsworthy.

Yet it is this very attitude, of downgrading domestic abuse to commonplace and unimportant, that allows abuse to escalate to the point of serious injury or death. If we don’t talk about abuse, or challenge abusive behaviours, or treat domestic abuse as a serious issue, we as a society are condemning more women to suffer and die.

We also need to ask ourselves how society’s attitude towards women encourages abuse. Because make no mistake, the vast majority of victims of domestic and sexual violence are women and the vast majority of perpetrators are male. And the epidemic of violence against women is inextricably linked to wider societal views and traditions relating to women. That is not to say that male victims don’t exist (they do), or that they are not important (they are). But when one in four women is likely to be affected by domestic abuse in her lifetime, and over 700 women a year have to flee to Women’s Aid refuges because they are not safe in their own homes, we need to talk about the societal inequalities and public discourse that allow abuse to permeate in the privacy of the home. And we as a society need to put strategies in place to eradicate inequality, and gender stereotypes, and objectification of women. Otherwise there will be more Concepta Leonards in our future.

We need to talk about austerity…

We also can’t ignore the fact that deaths like Connie’s don’t happen in a vacuum. Often a victim’s level of safety and protection is only as good as the government’s commitment to help them. We know that prevention and early intervention are most effective in stopping domestic abuse from escalating to life-threatening levels. And that protective measures like refuges and specially-trained police officers can help keep victims and their children safe. Yet at this very moment, services are being cut, reduced or scrapped entirely.

Less than two months ago, all refuge services for women and children across Northern Ireland had their budgets cut by 6%, after having had those budgets frozen for years. Like other services, we are also at risk of tender processes that fail to understand the need for specialised services, where qualified experts support women, children and men. Vital projects and services continue to be downsized or scrapped. The mantra of There Is No Money for vulnerable victims continues to be wheeled out, even as public money quite literally goes up in smoke.

On a UK-wide scale, women have disproportionately borne the brunt of the austerity cuts – it is estimated that 86% of welfare cuts have targeted women and children. Research indicates that 2.6 million children in the UK will be living in poverty by 2020 because of the current programme of cuts.

Meanwhile, women in Northern Ireland have been denied many vital protections that exist elsewhere in the UK. We do not yet have a domestic abuse or coercive control offence.  We have no stalking legislation. There is no domestic abuse disclosure scheme (also known as Clare’s Law) in place.  No domestic homicide reviews are conducted to help us learn lessons from the killing of women. Northern Ireland remains the only part of the UK that does not have a dedicated violence against women strategy. In our courts conviction rates are shamefully low for domestic and sexual violence crime. The message this sends out is loud and clear: if you’re a perpetrator you can act with impunity, and if you’re a victim you’re on your own.

So while Connie Leonard’s death is a tragedy, it is also a travesty. This is no isolated incident, but a damning indictment of our categoric failure to eradicate domestic abuse from our society. It is a warning that we need to rethink what we do and how we do it. This is our wake-up call.

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