Comment: Call for protests on International Women’s Day

By Fiona Ryan

This week Rosa, the socialist feminist movement, an organisation I have been a part of long before I was a city councillor, called a rally in Cork after disgraceful details of a Central Criminal Court case held in Cork emerged.

During closing arguments, a barrister advised the jury to consider how the complainant was dressed and specifically referred to her lacy thong.

The case struck a chord with people of all ages, from the women who marched in the 70s and paved the way for the emergence of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, to the young Repealers, a generation who became politicised over the country’s struggle for abortion rights.

The solidarity from men has also been widespread, with many disgusted at the unfortunately common tactics used in cases relating to sexual violence.

Why then, with what seems to be political and public agreement that things must change, are we still in a situation where rape myths remain the go-to tactic for defence barristers and solicitors? The reality is that while much public anger has been directed at Elizabeth O’Connell, the barrister in question, she represents a single cog in a fundamentally dysfunctional machine. In the absence of guidelines for judges to refer to in order to disallow victim-blaming comments, more often than not these comments are allowed to proceed, regardless of the damage this causes to confidence in the judiciary.

Indeed, even when judges take a stand, as in 2016, where Justice Patrick McCarthy would not allow the fact that a 15-year-old plaintiff was using contraception to be used as evidence against her, it can backfire. The eight-year conviction in that case was quashed precisely because Justice McCarthy did not allow for evidence that he correctly described as “degrading”.

A review into what reforms can be implemented is under way, chaired by Tom O’Malley, whose findings are due by December 31. There is no public consultation as part of this review. Urgent and radical reform is needed and other jurisdictions can point the way forward.

In South Africa, after struggling to deal with low conviction rates and low reporting by victims of sexual violence, a range of changes to how cases are dealt with was implemented. Changes include special training for both judges and law enforcement officials, allowing victims to give testimony outside the courtroom environment. Since then, the rate of successful convictions has risen.

However, the inaction of the past should serve as an important lesson to all those who marched last Wednesday and the many who couldn’t join but showed solidarity with tackling the institutional misogyny at the heart of this case. The political instinct will usually be towards the least disruptive, and therefore least effective, reform particularly when it comes to our justice system, which is very resistant to change.

Barristers are able to introduce these outdated, backwards arguments because they are playing on prejudices that exist in society and find them effective. 

The reality is that a man’s boxer shorts or the fact that he used hair gel before heading out for an evening would not be used as evidence of consent.

While Ireland has seen enormous changes among the broader population on questions relating to sex and sexuality, our political and legal institutions can be slow to catch up. 

All sections of the political establishment agreed on the need for strong sex education during the Repeal referendum. However, in the aftermath, feet are dragging, excuses are raised, and nothing has changed. We need to fight to ensure secular, evidence-based sexual education is provided in our schools, with consent at the heart and foundation of its curriculum.

International Women’s Day has become a global focus point for feminist and socialist movements and has become a day of action in recent years.

International Women’s Day 2019 has huge potential to be a crucial rallying point. Could we have national protests, workplace walkouts, even strike action?

A day of action for equality and against victim-blaming would send a strong message to a slow and moribund political establishment that only acts when sufficient pressure is applied.

Recently, Google employees showed the way with mass walkouts against sexual harassment in the workplace. 

This fury that emerged this week may only be the beginning. The great slavery abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, said: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” Let’s make International Women’s Day 2019 the largest yet.

Fiona Ryan is a Rosa activist and Cork City councillor.

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