Violence against women: What will the national prevention strategy consist of?

The Government has promised a ‘zero tolerance’ approach. Will it work?

Vicky Masterson with a picture of murdered teacher Ashling Murphy at a vigil outside Leinster House. Photograph: Laura Hutton

Last summer an eye-opening audit revealed a culture of “distrust, disrespect, othering and blaming” among people working in sectors that deal with domestic, sexual and gender-based violence.

While the review recognised the wealth of experience among people working in the relevant government departments and agencies, it said not enough attention was being paid to building proper relationships between different agencies.

The findings went below the radar – probably because the same warnings were being sounded 25 years ago.

Just before the 27th Dáil fell in 1997, Labour Party minister of state Eithne FitzGerald unveiled the report of the Task Force on Violence Against Women.


“Services … have developed in a piecemeal and relatively haphazard way rather than as a co-ordinated strategy. There are gaps in services which must be filled. The separate services offered to women who want to escape a violent relationship by different public and voluntary bodies need to be welded into a coherent set of supports.”

FitzGerald said the report sent out a “loud and clear” message that violence against women would be abhorred, and that the issue would be addressed. Promises of reform were made, and yet in many respects the same fragmented system remains.

The Government has now promised a new strategy that will set a “zero tolerance” approach to violence against women.

More accurately, it will be the third version of the national strategy on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence.

Not popular

The last iteration (the second strategy) was not popular – many sources who work in the system say privately that it was unclear how progress was being measured or who was doing it, and they speak of a plan that became so bogged down in detail that it became hard to see the overall goal.

During the course of their work the consultants who carried out last year’s audit were told “by most people” that the strategy was “cobbled together”, that the document was “all over the place” and “impossible to follow”, while reporting and monitoring were “ad hoc” and “had ground to a halt”.

The violent death of Ashling Murphy has now galvanised the nation into demanding coherent policies from political leaders once and for all.

The first question, and clearly one of the most important, is: who will be responsible for ensuring that change happens and will it be taken seriously by the political system?

It is understood that under the new plans, due to be published in the spring, the Department of Justice will lead all aspects of the new strategy – both policy and the provision of services.

Beyond that there will be a chain of accountability to the Taoiseach’s office and to a Cabinet subcommittee. This is hugely important. The last time around, there were remarks behind the scenes that some departments were poor attenders at monitoring committee meetings, that other departments were merely ticking boxes, and there was no link with either a Cabinet committee or the Department of Taoiseach, to ensure that there was someone to answer to on the big promises.

Other criticisms of the strategy that went before include: a lack of data about violence against women; culturally-insensitive communications to minority groups and on the treatment of migrant women and sex workers; shortages in refuge space; a deterioration of conditions in refuges; delays in cases going through the justice system; problems with access to legal representation; poor quality of representation; and difficulties in relationships between Tusla and NGOs.

Four pillars

The new plan will have to address all of this. The idea is that it will be built upon the four pillars of the Istanbul Convention, a human rights treaty aimed at eliminating all forms of violence against women. Every department will have a list of actions they must achieve, with specific timelines.

The four pillars are: prevention, protection, prosecution and co-ordinated policies.

Taking prevention as the first pillar, there will be much talk this spring of eradicating social and cultural attitudes which contribute to women feeling unsafe.

It is understood that this will include a national campaign on consent in schools and beyond. Taoiseach Micheál Martin also indicated this week that he believes relationships and sexuality education should not be ethos-based and that a national curriculum should be implemented irrespective of the patronage of a school.

He went further and said that there should be a post of responsibility in every school and that this person would have the authority to deliver the programme throughout the school.

It was also one of the recommendations of the citizen’s assembly on gender equality that a dedicated relationships and sexuality curriculum be created.

Under the second pillar – protection – the plan is expected to address the vital issue of refuge places and the quality of life inside the refuges.

Martin gave a hint of that this week when he said: “From the centre out we should now be designing what a modern refuge centre should be all about, including proper high-quality facilities. We need to design that and do it, and that is what we intend to do with regard to refuges. Some counties have very little provision at the moment.”

It is understood that Tusla will continue to have responsibility for refuge accommodation and services in the short term until this new system is ready to go.

New criminal offences

Much work is needed in terms of prosecution, which is the third pillar.

The citizen’s assembly has asked for guidelines and specialist training for judges and lawyers in the treatment of victims and survivors, including the exclusion of the consideration of sexual history, character, attire and counselling or medical records.

Separately, Justice Minister Helen McEntee has said she will publish a Bill that will include new criminal offences for stalking and for non-fatal strangulation.

Among other things the legislation will state that stalking includes watching or following a victim, even where they are not aware of being watched or followed.

She is also considering plans to allow a victim, in very serious cases, to apply to a court for an order to prevent an alleged perpetrator from communicating with them in advance of a trial.

A new Hate Crime Bill will introduce new offences with enhanced penalties for crimes motivated by prejudice against certain characteristics, including gender.

There will also be a Sexual Offences Bill to extend victim anonymity to further categories of victims; repeal provisions for sentences to be delivered in public and improve aforementioned issues around the legal representation for victims.

Biggest difference

The fourth pillar – co-ordinated policy – may not get as much attention as the others but it is one of the most significant challenges the system faces and could make the biggest difference in the day-to-day life of a survivor or victim.

At present victims must navigate a dizzying range of different agencies when they need help. A victim of domestic violence who is going through the courts, for example, may find it impossible to find alternative housing and to find a way to communicate what is happening.

The different levers of the State do not speak to each other as they should.

A huge challenge for the plan, beyond the ownership of it, will be to build a system that allows support services (helplines, women refuges, rape crisis centres, gardai, legal advice, the courts) to speak to community services (information, legal advice, healthcare, mental health, housing, childcare) in a way that reduces the burden and trauma and cost for affected women.

Big promises are being made about the role of this strategy in the future, and officials will finalise the details in the coming weeks.

The chief executive of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, Noeline Blackwell, says the priorities must be: central oversight, creating a coherent data platform to establish the true extent to which women are subjected to violence and abuse (otherwise, she says, we are operating in an “ignorance vacuum”), building a national understanding of consent, especially in a digital age, addressing harassment in the workplace, ensuring everyone in the justice system has the expertise to deal with victims, adequate legal aid, court facilities and procedures, high-quality refuges with enough space, and supports for hard-to-reach groups – among many other issues.

It will be a matter of political will that decides whether this strategy follows the fate of its predecessors or whether it effects the kind of transformation that so many in the country are demanding.

Jennifer Bray

Jennifer Bray

Jennifer Bray is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times