Gender-based violence plan a ‘step change’ in tackling ‘large-scale social problem’

Agencies welcome zero-tolerance strategy, but say it will require consistent, multiannual funding if it is to realise real change

The Government’s new “zero-tolerance” strategy to combat domestic and gender-based violence marks a “step change” in response to the issue and its recognition as a “large-scale social problem”, say agencies at the front line.

All warn, however, that no matter how ambitious it is, the plan will require consistent, multiannual funding as well as commitment from all relevant departments if it is to realise real change for women and children experiencing abuse in their homes.

Crucial will be the establishment of the as-yet-unnamed new statutory agency to drive delivery of the plan. It is due to be in place by January 1st, 2024.

“Because so much hinges on establishment of the agency, that is key,” said Orla O’Connor, director of the National Women’s Council.

She welcomed the guiding principle through the strategy, that the victim must be at the centre of all it seeks to achieve, and the “very strong definition of gender-based violence”.

The strategy includes detailed definitions of domestic violence, of sexual violence, of gender-based violence and of how these intersect with potential vulnerabilities, including addiction, ethnicity, sexuality and precarious legal status.

Drawing on Istanbul Convention definitions, it includes coercive control, physical coercion, prostitution, sexual harassment, stalking, cyber violence and female genital mutilation, as well as rape, assault and financial abuse.

Mary McDermott, chief executive of Safe Ireland — which represents refuges and domestic violence service providers — said this third national strategy “has a better grasp of the pervasive nature of domestic violence” than the previous two.

She welcomed in particular that it will be overseen by the Cabinet committee on social affairs and equality chaired by the Taoiseach, that it will be driven by a new statutory agency, and that it demands data collection, training for frontline professionals, and mandated input from the departments of Education, Housing and Social Protection. She said it marked a dramatic shift from the “piecemeal” approach heretofore.

“It really goes to the heart of way we understand this. If we see gender-based violence just as poor personal choices by some women, we are going nowhere. If we understand it as a large-scale social problem — in fact a key social problem — if placed at that level we believe there will be a truly hopeful way of addressing this.”

Cliona Sadlier, executive director of the Rape Crisis Network, welcomed that for the first time a national strategy on domestic violence included children as victims and a role for the Ombudsman for Children.

“We look forward to working more closely with his office,” she said.

Noeline Blackwell, chief executive of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, noted the strong commitment of the Taoiseach at the strategy’s publication. He gave his “guarantee” that “this Government will not be found wanting” on tackling domestic violence.

“We welcome the joint approach, right across Government, as we know from experience that gender-based violence permeates all aspects of our society and it will take a wide range of actors to tackle this dreadfully pervasive issue,” said Ms Blackwell.

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland is Social Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times