A few days ago, Mayo Rape Crisis Centre marked 25 years in existence with a simple ceremony at Lough Lannagh, where the first of 25 trees were planted to mark each year of operation. While the occasion was powerful, and sang of hope and light, the ceremony was also a reminder of just how complex the conversation around rape and sexual abuse is, and how it has continued to evolve in recent years. I left feeling I had gained additional new perspectives and learned new things, but most of all, I felt humbled, hearing from the powerhouses of women who took that initial step to set up the service in what was then a very different Ireland.
It cannot be denied that the service is needed now more than ever, and it needs to be acknowledged that so many of the challenging, but necessary conversations are either still not happening, or are happening in a way that may in fact be damaging to survivors. The #MeToo movement, while laudable in some respects, placed immense pressure on people – mostly women – to share their stories; not considering that due to trauma, they may not be able or ready to do so. Too frequently, however, these conversations remain shrouded in silence and darkness, much like the effects of the crime of sexual violence.
And while conversations about consent are slowly starting to happen, rarely in any discourse do we hear reference to perpetrators. It is a frightening and uncomfortable fact that the majority of sexual violence is perpetrated by someone known to the victim, but how are we talking to those people? Are we intervening? Are they even aware that there is, in fact help and support available for people who are having issues with consent, or feel they may become perpetrators? It is a message rarely heard, and as a prevention measure we urgently need to start encouraging these people out of the shadows to avail of this help before it is too late.
During the ceremony, some of the forgotten victims of sexual violence were also acknowledged in a thoughtful way, including the children of offenders. So often we forget the damage caused to innocent parties within the families of abusers. The people who work and volunteer on the front line within rape crisis services were acknowledged too. The rape crisis sector is a direct response to sexual violence, making those working within it fierce advocates for survivors and human rights activists, entitled to safety and protection. It is therefore no surprise that amidst messages of hope and recovery, anger exists about the many ways in which survivors are still being let down by the state, 25 years later.
It was notable too that no representative from Tusla, the main funders of the rape crisis service nationally were in attendance to mark the occasion. It is fair to say that the assignment of the sector to Tusla (the Child and Family Agency) in recent years has not been without its problems; it has been problematic, and worryingly so. Bureaucracy abounds, measurement metrics are unsympathetic to survivors, there are privacy concerns, and despicable funding cuts to the representative body, Rape Crisis Network Ireland (RCNI) have resulted in fragmentation within the sexual violence response sector and the loss of a valuable, best practice data collection service, the outputs of which could have been used in a safe and responsible way to influence policy development. The area of sexual violence falls between multiple stools, including the departments of Health, Children and Justice, and suffers from both a lack of a holistic approach to policy-making, and a lack of understanding of the absolute necessity to prioritise the safety and wellbeing of survivors.
It is fitting, and of credit to Mayo County Council that the site where the trees are to be planted is bright and highly visible. Survivors are part of the heart of every community and are often invisible; symbolically, this gesture will bring their stories and their experiences into the open, dignifying them and empowering them. Sexual violence and abuse is still happening daily in our midst. We owe it to ourselves and the future generations through our own actions within our homes, families and communities to ensure that the topic of sexual violence is stripped of its shrouds and shame, and brought into the open, where it can be addressed with meaning.
This article was first published in The Mayo News on Tuesday, November 5, 2019.
I am a volunteer board member of Mayo Rape Crisis Centre. The Centre’s helpline can be accessed by calling 1800 234 900.
For additional information, or to make a donation to the service, visit www.mrcc.ie.