Update: January 2016
This post was originally intended to deal with the way society quietly contributes to and colludes with a culture of violence against women in ways that are often so subtle, we don’t even notice. Be it “casual sexism”, the acceptability of men catcalling or abusing women on the street, the common tendency to imply that survivors of sexual assault somehow are partially to blame, the frequent disdain towards feminism, the objectifying and abuse of women in the media, as well as workplace cultures and media cultures that continue to quietly reinforce the myth that somehow women have less to contribute. All of the above elements are intertwined, and all play their own role in the way women are treated in society.
I also wanted to look at the low reporting levels and the frequently sentencing of crimes of violence against women, to examine the way the courts contribute to this culture. I have looked at reporting below; but the list of unduly lenient sentences became so long and unwieldy that I have now removed it, and it is available here.
Reporting of crimes of violence against women.
There’s plenty of evidence to demonstrate that violent crimes against women are significantly under-reported. It’s difficult to obtain exact statistics, but it’s estimated that, as few as one in five incidences of domestic assault are reported to Gardai. The Sexual Abuse Violence in Ireland (SAVI) report (2002) published by the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre found that disclosure of sexual crimes was startlingly low – just 7.8% of women experiencing adult sexual assault had reported to Gardai. Bear in mind that prosecutions and convictions for reported crime are very low also – according to the Garda Recorded Crime Statistics report 2007-2011, published by the CSO, there were 1,992 sexual offences recorded in Ireland in 2011. Court proceedings were taken for 318 (16%) of the offences recorded (with 244 pending at the time of publication), and convictions were returned in 54 cases. 54 convictions. That’s a conviction rate of 16%. Out of all offences reported, that’s a 3% conviction rate.
Why is this the case? There are a myriad of reasons. Firstly, identifying an assault in the first instance can be an issue – sometimes women aren’t aware that what they have experienced is actually an assault. Many don’t know where to go for support (over a quarter, according to SAVI, would not know where to turn). The reporting process itself can be traumatic. A victim of crime may have enough on their plate just dealing with the fact that they have been assaulted, without embarking on process they may not feel able to cope with. The burden of proof usually lies with the person who has been attacked, survivors are often afraid that they will not be believed, or that they will in some way be blamed for encouraging or provoking the attack. And if someone who’s been affected by a crime does decide to go down this road, conviction rates are low. The ordeal of reliving their experience on the witness stand under cross-examination can prove too much of a deterrent. If the perpetrator is convicted, sentencing is inconsistent at best.
Even the 2014 Garda Inspectorate Report recently demonstrated just how flawed process are within the force in terms of recording, classifying and following up on domestic violence, and also demonstrated that within the force, “some members displayed negative attitudes towards domestic violence by referring to calls as problematic, time-consuming and a waste of resources.”) So it’s clear that there is a massive problem.
Take the following scenario. To report a sexual assault women need to contact the gardai, and probagly get to a garda station. Depending on who they deal with, they might be given detailed, sympathetic information about the process ahead. SAVI indicates that lack of information from gardai and medical personnel was the main source of dissatisfaction with services – with gardai in particular providing inadequate explanations of procedures being undertaken, and medical personnel needing to provide more comprehensive information regarding services and options. Upon arriving, they’d be advised not to wash, remove their clothing, or brush their teeth. They might be injured – missing teeth, for example, or bleeding heavily. They’d need to be medically examined, but because facilities are under-resourced, they may need to wait for hours to be examined. They may even need to travel to a certain unit to be examined (there are just seven specialist Sexual Assault Treatment Units in Ireland). This is all in the immediate aftermath of an assault.
In terms of reporting, journalist Deirdre O’Shaughnessy gave an excellent and detailed account of the reporting process, pointing out that it is often a fraught one for survivors, who can frequently feel like they are peripheral to the process. Deirdre has included two case studies on the reality of the reporting process which are well worth a read. (Notably, Deirdre also explains that legislation on mandatory reporting of sexual abuse, while designed to prevent re-offending, can place the onus on survivors of assault who are already struggling to deal with the abuse, to ‘save’ others. This legislation will also introduce mandatory reporting for social services, agencies and public sector organisations dealing with abuse victims, a move that may potentially dissuade them from seeking assistance or counselling for fear they may be inadvertently starting a legal process that they don’t feel ready or able for.)
We’ve already seen that once crimes are reported, it’s a long road to prosecution and conviction, and the process can sometimes take years. Over the past few months a trend has become apparent in the way crimes against women are treated in Ireland by the courts. Lenient and inconsistent sentencing in particular is a concern, and I’ve detailed in this separate post just some of the more unacceptable examples of sentencing reported in the past few years. There are undoubtedly more, and the number of judges referenced indicates that this problem is ingrained in the judicial system.
Sentencing is not the only problem. Take the case of Danny Foley, a bouncer from Listowel, who in 2009 was jailed for five years for sexually assaulting a 22 year-old woman. Before he was jailed, approximately 50 people in the courthouse lined up to embrace him and shake his hand – in front of his victim – before he was jailed. Foley later lost a bid to overturn the conviction.
Where is the incentive for survivors to report, and sometimes be forced to relive their ordeal face-to-face with their attacker on the witness stand, when rapists and violent criminals, receive what appear to be minimal custodial sentences, sometimes none at all? When victim-blaming is rife, what does that say to a woman? What does the commercialisation of crimes say to potential rapists – giving them an option to pay a “token” of compensation in lieu of a spell in jail? That they can pay a price for their victim’s consent? The consistent theme of judges commenting on offenders’ previously “good characters” indicates that such assaults are viewed as a mere slip-up, an indiscretion, a minor mistake. Nowhere is there evidence to show that any of the members of the judiciary referenced above demonstrated an appreciation of the impact a sexual crime can have on a woman.
So what’s to do be done?
There’s a lot to do, and less than ever to do it with. But we owe it to those women who have had to endure the physical and psychological trauma of a violent assault, to ensure that we start sending a strong message to them (we are on your side, not your abuser’s) and to abusers (this is not acceptable and you will be severely punished).
When violent or sexual crimes are committed, we need to immediately stop victim-blaming, or implying that women attacked violently were in any way responsible for their assault be that in how they might have dressed, where they were or what they might have been wearing. They were not. The only people ever responsible for violent crimes are those who commit them. This is indisputable – yet we still see fit to imply that women who have been assaulted Jane Ruffino, mentioned above, has written this piece, entitled 10 things you should do when confronted with violence against women, and it’s worth a read.
Female survivors of violent abuse need support, and somewhere they can go for practical advice or counselling in a non-threatening and confidential environment. Organisations like Women’s Aid, the Rape Crisis Network and the Rape Crisis Centres as well as many smaller organisations do excellent work, but in the current environment are fighting harder for a smaller slice of the funding pie. Wexford Women’s Shelter and the Midwest Rape Crisis Centre have both had to close for periods of time due to lack of funding.
The need for sentencing guidelines, particularly in the area of sex crimes is being examined. As already mentioned, the Law Reform Commission is calling for a re-examination of mandatory sentencing however it would also surely be prudent for the judiciary, who undoubtedly have a difficult job to do, to be versed in the very real effects of sexual crimes against women, and to bear in mind the message their sentencing sends to both perpetrators and victims of crime. It is worth noting, however, that in a 2013 report, the Irish Sentencing Information System (ISIS) conducted research which suggested that sexual assault sentences in Ireland are not in fact too lenient, and that rapists who have either pleaded not guilty, failed to show insight into the nature and consequences of rape, or those who inflicted violence, were typically given a sentence of at least nine years in jail. Relatively few sentences were seen as lenient, according to the report, and those that were tended to be highlighted in the media.
There have been a number of calls for training of judges with regard to rape sentencing, particulary from within the Rape Crisis movement; however these have proved fruitless to date. In a 2014 interview on RTE Radion 1 with Seán O’Rourke, retired High Court Barry White rejected the idea of judges requiring training, saying: “I don’t believe that judges need training in relation to sentencing, in cases of a sexual nature. There may be judges who are inexperienced in dealing with crime, who find themselves sitting in the Central Criminal Court, from time to time, but most judges who sit in the Central Criminal Court have had long criminal experience, have had substantial criminal practices over protracted period of time. And they are fully aware, as to the parameters within which a sentence should be imposed.”
The mounting evidence would suggest that they are less aware of the implications of their decisions.
Aside from this, we need to take control ourselves and start creating a culture change. A change in perspective from ‘punishment’ to ‘prevention’, and educating our children, especially our boys, about consent. That means thinking about the way we treat, regard, discuss and behave towards women. All of us, men and women alike. We need education. We need to think about how we speak to our children, how we speak to each other in front of them and instil in them a different mentality than that which exists in society towards women presently.
If our judiciary don’t take it seriously, if our police force don’t do it seriously, if our government doesn’t take it seriously, if a significant proportion of the population at large doesn’t take it seriously, it’s time that those of us who do stepped up to the mark and started making Ireland a safer, better, more just country for everyone living here.