Irish Examiner View: Fight sexual violence as if it were a virus

We need to do more to tackle the 'shadow pandemic'
Irish Examiner View: Fight sexual violence as if it were a virus

It was profoundly dispiriting that International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on Wednesday was marked with a new report showing that almost 15% of Irish adults have been raped, while more than a third have experienced some kind of sexual violence.

The research, carried out by Trinity College Dublin and Maynooth University, was the first study on the prevalence of sexual violence in Ireland since the landmark Sexual Assault and Violence in Ireland (Savi) report in 2002 and, nearly two decades on, it appears that we have not made much progress.

The study found that 49% of women and 19% of men had been sexually assaulted or harassed, figures which are comparable to those in the Savi report almost 20 years ago.

So why has there been so little progress? It is not as if the Government is unaware of a situation that has been exacerbated by the pressure-cooker atmosphere in so many homes brought on by Covid-19 restrictions.

Even before the pandemic-fuelled spike in domestic violence, the programme for government recognised that there was an “epidemic of domestic, sexual, and gender-based violence” in Ireland. 

Why, then, is it not treating the issue with the same urgency that it is tackling the ongoing coronavirus?

The impact on society is just as devastating, although the long-term effects of trauma and mental health difficulties may not be as visible as the impact of Covid-19 on health and livelihoods.

There has, at least, been some progress. Recently, the Further and Higher Education Minister Simon Harris asked all third-level institutions to develop an action plan on sexual violence while, yesterday, he said education around consent was a requirement not just for students but those teaching them.

Earlier this month, in the courts, a man was found guilty of coercive control for the first time in Irish legal history, but much more needs to be done.

As Noeline Blackwell, CEO of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre has said: “The real problem is that the justice system has tried to squeeze intimate crime into the same template as all other types of crime.”

That part-explains why under 6% of assaults reported by Dublin Rape Crisis Centre (DRCC) clients to the gardaí in 2019 went to trial. That statistic is one of 16 which will be rolled out over the next two weeks in a DRCC campaign to show the scale of sexual violence in Ireland.

Each statistic bleakly highlights the vast number of issues that still need attention. 

It easy to understand why there are victims when you consider this statistic from Eurobarometer in 2016: 18% of Irish people agree that violence against women is often provoked by the victim. 

Or this one, from the same source: 12% of Irish people agree that domestic violence is a private matter to be handled within the family.

If the Government acted on these figures in the same way that it acts on the daily updates of Covid-19 infections, those statistics might start to look very different. For now, though, those figures are simply reminders of the need to start treating sexual violence in Ireland as the epidemic it is.

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