We must halt the increase in sexual violence

Mon, Dec 31, 2012, 00:00

OPINION:A horrific rise in rape and sexual assault necessitates urgent research and action

Over the past two weeks people took to India’s streets to protest against a horrendous gang rape by six men of a 23-year-old student who sadly died on Saturday of the injuries she suffered in the attack.

The demonstrations are reminiscent of the Reclaim the Night protests that swept the major cities of Europe in the 1970s. In 1979, the Rape Crisis Movement began in Ireland after the Dublin Reclaim the Night Protest March took place when a 16-year-old girl was gang-raped in Seán MacDermott Street. There were 78 calls to the Rape Crisis Centre helpline in 1979. In 2011, there were more than 11,000 calls to the national 24-hour helpline 1800-778888 and over 25,000 calls to the combined rape crisis helplines.

In 2012, the volunteer department of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre reported further increases in the levels of violence, when accompanying victims of rape and sexual assault to the sexual assault treatment unit in the Rotunda Hospital in Dublin.

However, until we can validate these stories of increased physical violence accompanying the rapes and sexual assaults with empirical evidence, there is little hope of meaningful change.

Savi report

In 2002, the most comprehensive piece of research about the attitudes and beliefs in Ireland towards sexual violence was launched. The Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland (Savi) report was delivered by Prof Hannah McGee et al from the Royal College of Surgeons, in collaboration with the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. The title is a play on the term “savvy”.

Among its many findings was the validation of the stories told in rape crisis centres, therapy rooms, confessionals and doctors’ surgeries across the country. Of the 3,000-plus adults surveyed, 47 per cent had never spoken about their experiences before.

Among the many shocking revelations from this report, we learned that four in 10 girls and one in four boys were victims of some form of sexual violence, from rape to assault, in their childhoods. Women were as vulnerable as girl children in the course of their lifetime and men became less vulnerable to sexual violence as they got older. But both men and women would still be victims of sexual violence as adults. We also learned only one in 10 reports the crime.

Someone once said that in Ireland we’re good at delivering reports but we suffer from implementation deficit. However, this was not the case with most of the recommendations of the Savi report.

The number of sexual assault treatment units in the country was extended from four to six. A master’s programme was developed in forensic nursing, which meant nurses were capable of delivering the necessary examinations. Now both specialist doctors and nurses can deliver the necessary forensic examinations, extending the number of experts available in the six units.

We also have a dedicated office within the Department of Justice and Equality – this is the National Office for the Prevention of Domestic Sexual and Gender-Based Violence, and is responsible for delivering national strategy. There is also a national steering committee specifically on violence against women. The Garda has a special unit in Harcourt Street. These are all positive developments that would not have been possible without supportive research. Savi had the effect of letting the genie out of the bottle on the extent of sexual violence in Ireland. The nation was shocked, appalled and stunned by the subsequent revelations and fallout from the Ferns, Ryan, Murphy and Cloyne reports. These further validated the stories of survivors and the figures in the Savi report.

Rigorous research

It is time now for a second Savi report. We need similar rigorous research to make proper comparisons with what we learned back in 2002 before Ferns, Ryan, Murphy and Cloyne and what we require today to address the growing levels of sexual violence. When this research is delivered, we will be better informed to develop appropriate policies.

We urgently need to find ways of stemming the growth in sexual violence the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre and other rape crisis centre volunteers are witnessing on a daily basis.

One would hope we are a long way from what happened in New Delhi but the stories from the sexual assault treatment units paint a very different picture. According to the official reports from New Delhi there were 572 rapes reported in 2011. Last year, Dublin Rape Crisis Centre-trained volunteers accompanied 272 victims to the Rotunda. New Delhi’s population is approximately 14 million; Dublin’s is approximately 1.2 million.

Ellen O’Malley-Dunlop is chief executive of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. The National Rape Crisis Centre can be contacted at 1800-778888 ( 24-hour free helpline)

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