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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Women and the 2016 General Election

This column first appeared in The Mayo News on 1st March 2016. 

While the 2016 General Election campaign itself failed to set the world on fire, the public’s interest was finally ignited precisely 48 minutes after the polls closed, when the Irish Times’ exit poll gave us a hint of just how much the political landscape was set to alter.

Now, there are so many fascinating angles from which to analyse the outcome, not least the massive task that lies ahead in forming a government, but it will be interesting to see over the course of the next Dáil term just what discernible effect, if any, the introduction of gender quotas – aimed at increasing female representation in the Dáil – will have had.

In the 2011 General Election, 86 out of 566 candidates were female. 25, or 15% of those won seats. This time out, 161 out of 546 candidates were women, and at the time of writing, at least 32 are guaranteed seats, with up to 37 potentially being elected. This would give a minimum female representation of 19%. (Update: 35 women were elected to Dáil Eireann in the 3nd General Election – 22% of deputies, representing a 40% increase on 2011).

The increase might not appear majorly significant given the low base, and should certainly reassure those worried male politicians that quotas are not actually designed to disadvantage them.  They merely present the electorate with a greater choice – and ultimately the electorate decides who to employ. Imposing quotas is a crude measure, which fails to address the root causes of low female participation, not least the family-unfriendly nature of the role. However, change needs to come from within, and women need to be visible in their participation in order to mobilise others. This is therefore a long-term project, so this weekend’s result is a move in the right direction.

The gender breakdown remains the same in Mayo, but with a new face at the table, with Fianna Fail’s Lisa Chambers replacing Fine Gael’s Michelle Mulherin. Based on this campaign, however, here is a strong possibility that we may see a more equal playing field next time out, should Sinn Fein’s Rose Conway Walsh have anything to do with it. At a national level, it is important now that there is adequate female representation at cabinet level too.

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Dara Calleary and Lisa Chambers celebrate after being elected. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Let’s hope our new female TDs have a thick skin, given the higher level of scrutiny they will face from the public than their male counterparts. They will inevitably encounter not just political criticism, which is of course fine and necessary, but most of them will also deal with criticism of their appearance, their clothing, their mannerisms and even their voices. Sometimes this will come from their own colleagues. You only have to look at the vitriolic bullying personally directed at Joan Burton over the past five years for proof.

Let’s get this straight. It takes a hell of a lot of courage and self-belief to walk the walk and put yourself in front of the electorate, let alone take on the responsibility of governing. It’d be far easier to hurl from the ditches with the rest of us.  The very least our female TDs now deserve is to be treated with respect, and to be judged by the same standards as their male colleagues – on how they do their jobs.

 

Our broken health system

This article was first published in The Mayo News on 19th January 2016.

Raising your voice to an overworked nurse in the middle of the A&E department, teeming with patients, crammed with beds and trolleys; that sounds like a pretty obnoxious thing to do. Yelling at her as she tries to do her job sounds like the height of ignorance. But when you’re sitting in the waiting room and a relative calls you from inside the emergency department to tell you they urgently need your help, it means something’s not quite right.

Everyone knows A&E is a busy spot. But in our visit over Christmas, a result of a respiratory illness, my relation was seen surprisingly quickly. In the midst of their assessment, they suffered a severe asthma attack. They were helped to a small room at the back of the department and sat in a chair, with the promise of relief to come via a nebuliser, a device that uses oxygen to break up a liquid medical solution to deliver relieving medicine directly to the lungs. They were left alone. As the minutes passed, they started to feel faint, as they struggled to get air into their lungs. And no-one returned.

So when my phone rang, I knew something was amiss. Confused, by the time I made my way into the department – where I wasn’t technically meant to be – and located them, their distress was evident. Although I tried to appear calm, it was obvious that help was urgently needed.

I ran to seek assistance from someone – anyone. I hijacked a nurse, already occupied, and begged her to help. And when she started asking perfectly reasonable questions like the patient’s name, the location of their file, the identity of the original nurse, panic got the better of me. And I raised my voice to that nurse. That tired, overworked nurse near the end of a long shift, trying to do her job in what can only be described as horrendous conditions – to yell at her to forget the files and to please, just help, right now.

And she did, without batting an eyelid. And within seconds the oxygen was flowing, and with it, a tiny bit of relief amidst the chaos. The blood returned to all our cheeks. We thanked her profusely.

As we waited in the room for a doctor to arrive, both trying to calm ourselves, I got my bearings. I went to find water, and the corridors strewn with people on trolleys. One man was starving, he said. No food for hours. In the waiting room, the coffee machine was broken, the snack machine was broken and the toilets were out of order. There was nowhere to get a bite to eat.

 Across the way lay an elderly gentleman in a gown. “When will the doctor see him, do you think?” asked his wife. “I’m afraid there are eight other people ahead of him,” said the nurse apologetically, “that need attention more urgently.”

patients on trolleys

When the doctor arrived, he was young and gentle and tired. Sensing our distress, he spoke in soft and reassuring tones, explaining what he was going to do and why. And we started to feel safe again.

And the mystery of why the original nurse didn’t return, or administer oxygen when all the equipment was right there in the room, was never solved, because it didn’t matter, and because I didn’t trust myself not to raise my voice again. Maybe someone else needed attention more urgently. Perhaps, with a hundred other things on her plate in the midst of that madness, she just forgot. Nurses are human too.

I chatted with the porter as he wheeled the trolley down to the deserted X-ray department. “I love coming down here for a bit of a peace and quiet,” he said. “That place”, he gestured, “is like a zoo.” A doctor had been assaulted in a row earlier in the day, he said.

We were lucky. After treatment, we escaped in a matter of hours. I drove back down the road feeling fortunate to have a passenger. I wondered what would have happened had I not been there. Perhaps it would have been fine. But perhaps not, and that’s the thing.

They say this is a country in recovery. But its health system is very ill.

Patients deserve – at the very least – to feel safe in A&E. To know they are getting the best possible care, not to feel at the mercy of an overcrowded system. Medical professionals – among them many unsung heroes – deserve to feel safe and have sufficient resources to work to the best of their ability.

And none of them deserve to be yelled at while doing their jobs.

‘Yes, I said, yes I will yes’ – why ‘Yes’ x 2 is the way to go this Friday

With a mere few days to polling day, you’d be forgiven for being under the impression that we were voting on just one issue on May 22nd. Coverage of the marriage referendum has been so comprehensive, relentless and so repetitive, that it’s all the more surprising that media haven’t been focusing on the other choice being presented to voters – the proposal to lower the age of presidential candidates to 21 – if for no other reason than to just give us all a bit of light relief. But it’s highly likely a significant proportion of the population aren’t even aware they’ll be handed two ballot papers on Friday week. A fine example of democracy in action.

As fatigue begins to set in though, it’s likely we’ll see some half-hearted efforts in the next few days to publicly debate why we should allow 21 year-olds – people who may not even yet have started their first job – to run for President of Ireland.

The reactions to the proposal to date have tended to be predictably dismissive and a bit disparaging, which is disappointing. Granted, this isn’t the most pressing change that needs making in Ireland, but at a time when politics is crying out for an injection of youthful enthusiasm, the scorn that’s been instantly heaped on the suggestion without any detailed consideration subtly demonstrates how we really regard our young people. Surprisingly, even youth organisations have been relatively quiet on the matter, instead preferring to focus on the marriage referendum – which ironically, is a campaign with which young people have thus far engaged on levels rarely seen before. But perhaps they’re just being smart by not channelling their energy and resources into flogging a dead horse when there’s a far more pressing issue on the table.

Why is this amendment even being put to the people? Well, the issue arose during the Constitutional Convention, a forum of 100 citizens established in 2012 to discuss amendments to the Constitution. The Constitutional Convention had also sought amendments on housing rights, social security and healthcare services, but this was somehow deemed more appropriate. It’s a funny one; but it’s likely that the government felt backing a contentious, divisive and ground-breaking Constitutional amendment such as allowing two people in love to officially declare their commitment to each other a risky enough manoeuvre without creating further havoc. Best to play it safe on this one, because let’s face it, this government is already all too familiar with the sensation of egg drying into their whiskers.

So, what discussion have we heard to date in #PresRef, as it’s known in the online sphere? Well, the main assertion is that no-one aged under the age of 35 could possibly have the life experience, capability or maturity expected to carry themselves with dignity in this position of great importance. The majority seems to concur. Apart from perhaps the fact that allowing someone to become President in their twenties means you might get landed with paying the Presidential Pension for a few extra years, that, incredibly appears to be the sum total of the debate. Pretty incredible for something as important as a Constitutional Amendment.

The debate has failed on any level to counteract this argument by pointing out the inherent ageism, laziness and unfairness of it.  We are not voting on whether or not we will have a 21 year-old President, though given the level of opposition to it, you’d be forgiven for thinking that a Yes vote would automatically propel one of Jedward into Michael D’s still-warm seat in the Áras come 2019. I can tell you, however, I’d far sooner see either one  – or both of them in there – than the likes of Dana.

The key argument for voting YES to the Presidential amendment is that the current system is anti-democratic, because young people don’t even get the opportunity to present themselves to the electorate. They are currently automatically excluded based on an arbitrary number, rather than getting the chance to be elected or rejected on their merit, or lack of. There is no good reason for this, but plenty of good reasons for our young people – many of them perfectly talented, hardworking, intelligent and capable – to be given the opportunity to put themselves out there. They deserve, at the very least, not to be excluded from this process. And in fact, the key objection to this referendum should be that it proposes to continue excluding adults aged 18-21 from running for Presidential office – the only justification apparently being that it will then mirror the age at which you can become a TD.

So it’ll be two emphatic Yeses for me, because I want to see Ireland becoming a place that’s fairer and kinder, and it strikes me as more than  a little hypocritical to be voting for inclusiveness in one referendum while simultaneously opposing it in the other. But the joy of democracy is that we all have our say, so on Friday week, wherever you stand, be sure to have yours too.

jedward

An abridged version of this post appeared in The Mayo News on Tuesday 12th May 2015.

Gender Quotas – a necessary evil?

This article was originally published in The Mayo News on Tuesday 9th April 2015.

Spring is in the air, bringing with it longer days and glorious sunshine. But mixed with the scent of fresh cut grass and cherry blossom, there’s the distinct whiff of a general election, and while in theory, we’re nearly a year away from returning to the polls, politicians are already in full-on electioneering mode. One intriguing element of the next election will be the influence of gender quotas. All political parties will face losing half their funding unless at least 30% of candidates put forward are women.

A drastic measure? Consider this. 566 candidates ran in the 2011 General Election. 86 were women.  25 won seats, meaning that under 14% of our TDs are women – abysmal by international standards. Women’s skills and experience are therefore not proportionally represented in decision-making that affects everyone. This, despite acknowledgement that balanced political participation by both sexes means fairer, more effective democracies – something, surely to which we should all aspire?

So why aren’t women running for election? Commonly cited as barriers to proportional female representation in Ireland are the Five Cs: Cash, Culture, Childcare, Confidence and Candidate Selection. These five factors are interlinked, each impacting the other to create barriers to female participation.

Take cash, to start. Running for election is expensive. Women are economically less well-off then men (this is a fact!). Employments rates drop significantly when children arrive, and many women – who generally still bear primary responsibility for family life – balance this by working part-time, restricting public involvement. Last year, Mayor of Tralee, Pat Hussey resigned from Fine Gael, citing gender quotas. Women, he claimed were being “pushed in” by his party, excluding more experienced members. Mr Hussey, incidentally, claimed to have no problem with women joining councils, but felt factors like babysitting would make it prohibitively expensive for them – an attitude which sharply undermines the role of men in childcare. Which in turn, leads me to culture – the core of it all.

Women battle culture all the time. They’re expected to do more. We have higher expectations of them. Female politicians aren’t just judged on performance, they’re also critiqued on image, appearance, even their voices. When are male politicians subjected to such scrutiny? You can see why confidence, the fourth C is a factor. A key objection to quotas is that women will be selected purely to “make up numbers”; not because they are the best possible candidate. Essentially, a fear that quotas will elect incompetent women at the expense of good men. The economic crash doesn’t say much about the competency of those running the country at the time. Where was accountability and meritocracy then? Why are we now suggesting that women need to prove competency, where men never had to?

Finally, while all of the above contribute to candidate selection difficulties, there is a supply and demand problem. Parties select election candidates, so selector attitudes can contribute – if male candidates have been the norm, breaking the mould can be hard. However, a lack of supply of female candidates putting themselves forward (for the reasons above) restricts those who do want to run women. The vicious circle continues!

So is imposing gender quotas the means of breaking this cycle?

I’m not fully convinced. Quotas are a crude measure, which ignore the issues underpinning the problem. Rather, we need to address barriers that dissuade women in the first place. Childcare, for example, should be viewed not as a female issue, but as a family one. Family-friendly policies may help, but however – and here lies the critical argument! – unless women are adequately represented in the first place, who will drive the change necessary to attract more women into politics?

Evidence also suggests that increased visibility of females in politics can mobilise women, resulting in greater involvement. So while gender quotas aren’t in themselves the answer, I can’t help feeling that – as a temporary measure – they’ll help fast-track some reform necessary to encourage involvement, and so are worth a shot. I therefore reluctantly find myself in favour. Recognising and addressing the issue is a vital first step, so here’s hoping that the outcome of quotas can prove that this is more than just tokenism, and will result in solid, positives outcomes for society as a whole.

Bishops’ arguments against same-sex marriage don’t stack up

This article appeared in The Mayo News on Tuesday 9th December. 

Last weekend, the Catholic Bishops of Ireland distributed a 16-page document to all 1,300 parishes in the country, outlining their opposition to same sex-marriage, in light of the imminent referendum on same-sex marriage due to take place in Spring 2015. In this lengthy tome, the bishops suggested that same-sex marriage is contradiction in terms, because marriage, by its nature is a “committed relationship between and man and a woman which is open to the transmission of life.”

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Photo: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

The debate on same-sex marriage has been rumbling away in the background on social media and the airwaves over the past year and is set to ramp up after Christmas, when campaigning from both “sides” will begin in earnest. Let’s call a spade a spade; it hasn’t been pleasant to date, nor will it continue without causing considerate, disproportionate hurt to many. I can’t cover the entire discussion here, but some of the arguments are questionable, so within the constraints of this column let’s lay some facts on the table.

First things first – the same-sex marriage referendum is concerned with granting civil marriage to same-sex couples, not Catholic marriage. That’s an important distinction. While many wedding ceremonies take place in churches, those that don’t hold exactly the same legal footing – it’s all about that little piece of paper you sign at the end. (And of course, the small fee.) So while Catholic bishops are perfectly entitled to express their opinion on same sex-marriage, the passing of the referendum will – reasonably – not oblige the church to facilitate it.

Secondly, who defines marriage? It doesn’t fall within the Catholic Church’s remit to do so – in fact, claiming it is a little cheeky given its existence outside Catholicism, and given that the first recorded marriage contracts pre-date Jesus himself by about 600 years. Marriage can mean different things to different people – for some it’s about love, other about taxes (both equally troublesome, if you ask me). For more, it’s about children, for others it’s not. To suggest that procreation is central to marriage doesn’t reflect the reality of many marriages today, and is unfair, even hurtful to those married couples who don’t want children and those would love to have children, but can’t.

Children – the big one. One of the central tenets of the Catholic argument against same-sex marriage claims it could effectively “deprive children of the right to a mother and a father”. Now, let’s get this straight (no pun intended). This Referendum is not about parental rights. Many children currently don’t have a mother or father, or either. Others live in unsafe homes with both. Gay people routinely have children, gay couples in Ireland can foster children, and gay individuals can adopt children. The imminent Children and Family Relationships Bill provides for allowing same-sex couples in civil partnerships to jointly adopt, thus protecting those children should something happen to one parent, and is likely to be passed before the referendum takes place. And the obviously, unmarried people – gay, straight, whatever – have children all the time. So this argument simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny on any level, I’m afraid.

Finally, for those who would suggest that civil partnership in its current form is sufficient protection for gay couples, there are over 160 statutory differences between it and civil marriage, many centering around finance, taxation, even the home.

The fact is, allowing lesbian and gay couples – our own families, friends and colleagues – to pledge their love and commitment, secure their futures and those of their children won’t change or affect any existing or future marriage of a man and a woman. Other people’s finances, family lives and bedroom activities are their own business – nothing to do with a Church that with all its own problems, can surely find something more constructive and Christian to do with its time. Ultimately, if you don’t like gay marriage, no-one is forcing you to have one. But if you believe in equality, it surely stands to reason that everyone should have the same opportunity to be miserable.

I’ll be voting ‘yes’. Will you?

A Woman’s Worth Part I – the reporting of violent crimes against women

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.)

Sentencing

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).

Stop victim-blaming

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.

Sentencing guidelines

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.

Training

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.

Taking responsibility

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.