Domestic violence - Strategy for women just a vote stunt

THERE’S a cynical whiff of electioneering about the timing of today’s release of the Government’s long-awaited report on a national strategy for women.

In a transparent bid to silence an increasingly vocal women’s lobby barely six weeks before the General Election, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern will announce the setting up of an office to coordinate inter-departmental responses to domestic violence.

Having dragged its feet for 10 years since the report of the task force on violence against women, the Government’s belated initiative bears all the hallmarks of a vote-buying stunt.

However, this carefully orchestrated public relations event could backfire on the Coalition if, as predicted in today’s Irish Examiner report, junior minister Frank Fahey rejects key demands to set a level of women’s representation in such areas as political party membership, candidacy in elections, decision-making roles and directorship of State bodies. Reportedly, the minister, who holds responsibility for women’s equality issues, will say such a policy would not be feasible.

For some time, the Coalition has been left in no doubt that issues like domestic violence were set to become a lightning rod for a powerful women’s political lobby in the forthcoming election.

Indeed, this became abundantly clear during the crisis surrounding the lack of funding for the National Domestic Violence Intervention Agency. Though it was serving an important role by, among other things, collating data on domestic violence for the judiciary, it was effectively starved of funds by the Department of Justice, an approach endorsed by Justice Minister Michael McDowell.

As a result, the agency is now languishing in a state of limbo and facing an uncertain future.

The question perplexing many women today is why it took so long to put the report on the national women’s strategy into the publican domain. They could be forgiven for feeling it has been deliberately kept under wraps so it could be released just before the Taoiseach goes to the country.

On the vexed question of creating targets for female representation in political parties and other groups, women’s groups point out that such policies have proved highly effective in Sweden.

Closer to home, it could be argued that had the Labour Party not made the ground-breaking decision to put Mary Robinson, Ireland’s first woman president, on the ticket, Fianna Fáil would never have thought of nominating a female academic from Belfast and the incumbent, President Mary McAleese, would never have made it to Áras an Uachtaráin.

Coincidentally, yesterday also saw the launch of a manifesto on domestic violence by women’s groups who claim Ireland’s record in the lifetime of this government has been appalling.

They are calling on women to demand doorstep commitments from party political candidates on realistic funding for addressing domestic violence. They also believe that decisions on this grave issue should be taken at the Cabinet table rather than at junior ministerial level.

Moreover, they want to see meaningful reform in how the judiciary deals with violence against women. And they have also called for garda methods of dealing with domestic violence to be overhauled.

Even before it is released, the vibes emanating from concerned groups suggest the Government’s national women’s strategy looks likely to frustrate the hopes pinned on a policy framework that will set standards on a range of serious issues for years to come.

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