It’s good to see Enda Kenny and Micheál Martin condemn how victims of rape are treated

Opinion: On the same day Maíria Cahill met the Taoiseach, Safe Ireland revealed 11,500 women and children received support from domestic violence services in 2013. 3,500 requests for emergency accommodation were refused because refuges were full

‘The image of Enda Kenny hugging Maíria Cahill outside Government Buildings was a moment – no matter how orchestrated – that showed something politics rarely displays: tenderness.’ Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times

‘The image of Enda Kenny hugging Maíria Cahill outside Government Buildings was a moment – no matter how orchestrated – that showed something politics rarely displays: tenderness.’ Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times

 

The image of Enda Kenny hugging Maíria Cahill outside Government Buildings was a moment – no matter how orchestrated – that showed something politics rarely displays: tenderness. Cahill is a brave and articulate woman, and her struggle should not be used for political gain, but it is inevitably an intensely political situation. The language both the Taoiseach and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin have used to condemn how victims of rape are treated in the context of Cahill is perhaps the strongest rhetoric either man has used publicly in relation to sexual violence against women. It’s about time.

On the same day Cahill met the Taoiseach, Safe Ireland released some statistics: 11,500 women and children received support from domestic violence services last year; 3,500 requests for emergency accommodation were refused because refuges were full; and domestic violence services answered a call every 12 minutes. Physical and sexual violence perpetrated against women seldom has a face. It is hidden and ignored, which is what makes Cahill’s visibility so powerful.

Torrid history Ireland, like most countries, has a torrid history of dealing with rape. If you’re older than 24 it was legal in your lifetime for a man to rape his wife. It was only in 1990 that the marital exemption in relation to rape was abolished in the Criminal Law (Rape) (Amendment) Act. Yet consent is still a murky area for Irish people, with our alcohol-fuelled dating and hook-up culture; poor sex education in schools; and remaining taboos around discussing sex in an open and nonjudgmental manner.

Earlier this year Rape Crisis Network Ireland published a fascinating report on the dynamics of consent (Young People, Alcohol and Sex: What’s Consent Got To Do With It?), gathering focus groups of young people and presenting them with scenarios on which they then commented. In a summary of research findings and recommendations, it was stated: “Young people who participated in this study reported being unprepared to negotiate sexual consent safely when challenging alcohol-driven situations arose, leaving them vulnerable to sexual violence.” It added: “Defining and applying an understanding of consent was viewed as challenging, due to limited exposure to education and underarticulated social norms.”

A 2008 opinion poll on people’s attitudes to sex crimes showed 37 per cent of respondents believed a woman bore some responsibility for her rape if she flirted extensively with a man; and 38 per cent believed a woman must share some of the blame for her rape if she walked through a deserted area.

How can we change attitudes? How can we teach men not to perpetrate acts of sexual or physical violence against women? It is a behavioural change that we have to believe can happen. Like all efforts to change behaviour and a culture it needs a multipronged approach, combining awareness, political will, resources, policing and proper justice.

In terms of awareness, Safe Ireland’s Man Up campaign is a good start. It’s heartening to hear ads on the radio directed at men when it comes to violence against women in the home. It is also hugely commendable that the most high- profile broadcaster in the country, Ryan Tubridy, is using his celebrity to highlight this cause and engage men in conversation regarding violence against women.

Kangaroo courts

In terms of justice, Cahill talks about “kangaroo courts”. The manner with which the IRA dealt with sexual offenders was abysmal and illegal. But sometimes, when one reads reports from our courts about perpetrators of physical and sexual violence against women receiving low custodial sentences, suspended sentences or fines, one wonders where the kangaroo courts end and the legitimate ones begin.

In terms of resources, Annamarie Foley of Adapt Women’s Refuge in Tralee put things bluntly last week: “Women and families are being failed by the system . . . Women are not getting the responses they need to allow them to exit domestic violence situations.”

Safe Ireland chief executive Sharon O’Halloran said: “Our services are operating beyond capacity and have been for years. In order to support these women and the women we know we are not hearing from, we need additional capacity.”

Why can’t the money be found to protect women from physical and sexual violence? Why don’t we care enough about women being beaten up? Changing behaviour is a long-term process. In the interim the resources must be put in place to – at the very least – shelter and counsel women in danger.

In terms of political will, the languages both of condemnation and of empathy Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil’s leaders have used in relation to Cahill must bring some comfort to others who have suffered rape and other violence at the hands of men. Most of these women will have never reported it. Let’s just hope that long after Cahill’s experience has been used by some as a tool to undermine Sinn Féin the empathy and condemnation at a high political level about violence against women continues.

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