Withdrawal of SAVI funding an insult to sexual abuse survivors

This article was originally published in The Mayo News on 24th October 2017. 

Last week, amidst all the talk of inclement weather and hatch-battening, it was reported by Ellen Coyne in the Irish edition of The Times that Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan had quietly reneged on a promise made by his predecessor, Frances Fitzgerald, to fund an updated report on sexual violence in Ireland. The first Sexual Assualt and Violence Report (SAVI) was carried out in 2002, and was groundbreaking both in its methodology and the insights it provided into the dark and murky world of sexual violence, as well as estimating the prevalence of the problem. (Hint: a lot more prevalent than many would like to acknowledge).

Now 15 years old, this valuable document pre-dates some seismic changes in Irish society, and groups working in the area of domestic and sexual violence have been calling for an updated SAVI to be produced, at a cost of approximately €1m. Minister Fitzgerald had committed to the report, after telling civil servants that she believed that such work was important, due to questions raised about the validity of Garda statistics.

The government is now insisting that the research is unnecessary, and that data collected by bodies such as Rape Crisis Network Ireland (RCNI) and Rape Crisis Centres suffices. They conveniently neglect, however to mention that until 2015, Rape Crisis Network Ireland managed a “best-in-class” data collection system, which gathered data from services users in most rape crisis centres in Ireland. Consistently falling between the remit of two government departments, responsibility for RCNI was delegated to TUSLA, who promptly withdrew funding for the data collection system, insisting they could do it themselves.

RCNI and other bodies have consistently raised concerns about TUSLA’s system, on grounds that it cannot guarantee anonymity and therefore compromises survivor safety – a further deterrent to reporting. The last SAVI report revealed that crimes of sexual crimes against men and women are significantly under-reported, in many cases due to fear of the consequences of reporting.   Only last year, TUSLA were forced to remove such a report from their website amidst privacy concerns. Meanwhile, in a statement released on 23rd October – which makes for incredibly grim reading – RCNI have confirmed that they cannot now afford to publish their own 2016 report – this being data upon which the government will apparently be relying to formulate policy. You couldn’t make it up.

This latest, scandalous incident is just further proof of the contempt with which the State views our most vulnerable, and those who are often least equipped to defend themselves. Bear also in mind also the consistent and undeniable recurring theme of unduly lenient sentences for crimes of sexual violence and violence against women. Rape survivor Niamh Ní Dhomhaill hit the nail squarely on the head when she suggested that the government was wilfully ignoring the scale of sexual violence, as to quantify it would necessitate taking action to address it. There can be no other explanation.

It was confirmed over the weekend by An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, that the funding SAVI was dropped on the advice of the Department of Justice in favour of “providing free legal aid for people who are victims of domestic violence”.  This pathetic excuse would be almost amusing in its lack of ambition and proactivity if the consequences were not so dreadfully serious, and if lives were not being damaged every day, but it is truly heartening to know that the €5m (the equivalent of five SAVI’s, you know) spent on the Department of the Taoiseach’s new spin doctor service (“The Strategic Communications Department”) is being put to good use already. Good old Ireland, eh?

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It would be terribly remiss of me to conclude this column without paying tribute to the late Neill O’Neill. Two weeks on, I am still struggling to process the fact that he is no longer with us. My last contact with Neill was on the Monday afternoon hours before his death, and it seems so wrong and unnatural that someone brimming with life and drive, so full of plans should not be here. I will be forever grateful for Neill for giving me the opportunity to write with the Mayo News, and my deepest sympathies go to his partner Emma, and to his family, colleagues and friends, and I wish them strength and courage to face the difficult times ahead and hope it has been of comfort to them to hear just how loved and respected he was by his community, and by those of us from further afield.  Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

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