2002 report on sexual violence in Ireland is hopelessly outdated

Technology has changed, particularly through the ubiquitousness of the mobile phone but the need for research has not diminished, writes Alison O’Connor

IN 2002, the notion that a digital device, held in your hand, could be a child’s first introduction to sex, contribute to addictions to hardcore pornography, or even used to blackmail someone for a sexual act caught on camera, would have seemed unimaginable.

Yet this is exactly what has occurred in the intervening years, through the ubiquitousness of the mobile phone. The mobile has revolutionised sex in a digital manner. This is just one of the many reasons why a report into sexual abuse and violence in Ireland published 17 years ago is so hopelessly outdated.

The SAVI report was a ground-breaking one at the time, finding 27% of Irish people, just over one in four, had experienced sexual abuse in childhood. It gave us the first clear picture of the nature and extent of sexual violence in Ireland. However the passage of time, and indeed the changes in technology, means that the information is positively antiquated.

It would be lovely to write that the need for such research has significantly reduced in the meantime but sadly nothing could be further from the truth. As addressed recently in this column there has been an avalanche of media reports lately concerning violence against women including murder, domestic violence, sexual abuse and rape cases, and most recently the appalling abuse uncovered in Scouting Ireland.

Leona O'Callaghan.
Leona O'Callaghan.

Anyone this week who read the victim impact statement of Leona O’Callaghan, who was raped by Limerick man Patrick O’Dea when she was aged 13 in a graveyard, could not fail to have been moved. It was incredible in its honesty and tragedy. Her rapist was jailed for 17 years. She also called for changes to the system by which rape trials are investigated and conducted.

Yet just over a year ago Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was saying there was no need for a SAVI II despite the incredible changes which had occurred in the intervening years and the massive gaps in our knowledge around how many people, had been abused, raped or were victims of sexual violence.

At the beginning of the original SAVI report it stated that the prevalence of sexual violence in Ireland was unknown, that incomplete evidence from crime statistics, previous research reports and service uptake figures were “insufficient to understand the nature and extend of the problem and to plan and evaluate services and preventative interventions”. Talk about things coming full circle. That report certainly gave us a baseline, but all this time later we appear to have been running to stand still.

Quite incredibly, we do not know how many women report sexual and physical violence on an annual basis because of various issues within our system. What we do know comes from information collected at EU level. It’s difficult to think of such trauma occurring during someone’s life time, and it going unrecorded officially because of shortfalls in how we handle these issues, and a lack of urgency from the top level.

Around the time the Taoiseach was expressing disinterest in further study in this area the Rape Crisis Network of Ireland said it would not be publishing statistics on the experiences of survivors of sexual abuse for 2016 because of huge cuts to its funding. The network had been producing national statistics since 2005 but after a whopping 70% was taken out of its budget in 2015 this was no longer possible. This was all occurring at a time when we were in the midst of the global #MeToo revelations and nationally absorbed in a discussion on what to do with the 8th Amendment. What was all the more bewildering was that the cost — while not cheap at €1m it was hardly prohibitive. Tone deaf would hardly describe it.

To give a sense of the statistics that we do know almost 3,000 sexual offences were recorded to gardaí last year, but this figure represents only those who came forward. The Dublin Rape Crisis Centre estimate that an exceptionally low one in 10 victims report the crime. The national rape crisis helpline took almost 12,500 calls in 2016, of which just over three quarters were from women.

The original SAVI report — commissioned by the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre and carried out by the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland — found that over a lifetime 42% of women had suffered sexual abuse or assault. The National Women’s Council of Ireland had repeatedly called for comprehensive figures on sexual violence.

Incidentally, Maeve Lewis, executive director of the One in Four charity, said this week it had been forced to close its waiting list because it had been inundated with inquiries since the summer and that the situation was similar for the Rape Crisis Centres and the National Counselling Service. She said the Pope’s visit had been a catalyst for many people to contact counselling services. Surely the deluge of cases being reported in recent weeks, including the now infamous thong case, would have also been triggering for many victims. But incredibly even when they take the monumental step to ask for help the resources are not there to give it.

A year after the controversy over not funding a second study and a subsequent U-turn on that, we had the official announcement of SAVI 11 this week.

But with it came the incredible news that we will have to wait a further five years before we lay eyes on it.

Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan said that since it would take the bulk of five years to conclude, we won’t see it until 2024.

The work is to be carried out by the Central Statistics Office and will involve 5,000 people, 2,000 more than in the original SAVI and be more comprehensive in its scope. Next year statisticians will be trained in interviewing people on such sensitive and intimate topics and following two years of preparation a pilot study will be carried out, followed by the main study.

So far it has got an allocation of an exceedingly modest budget of €150,000 for next year but we rely on good faith that it will be further funded after that. Now that it is to finally go ahead, it goes without saying that it should be done in a professional and accurate manner and that people be properly trained to ask questions and delve into people’s private and painful memories in a most sensitive way.

But a five-year time span? This just beggars belief and almost seems like some sort of sick joke. Surely this will be addressed.

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