A landmark for women’s rights

Istanbul Convention is opportunity to change Ireland’s track record on violence against women

 Taking to the streets ... Hazel Madden, Fiona Holton, Ciara Murphy, Rebecca McCarthy and Kate O’Brien, in flashmob dance in Dublin’s O’Connell street as part of the join “One Billion Rising” in 2013  – claimed to be the biggest global demonstration   staged to call for an end to violence against women.  Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

Taking to the streets ... Hazel Madden, Fiona Holton, Ciara Murphy, Rebecca McCarthy and Kate O’Brien, in flashmob dance in Dublin’s O’Connell street as part of the join “One Billion Rising” in 2013 – claimed to be the biggest global demonstration staged to call for an end to violence against women. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

 

Yesterday was a historic day in the protection of women from domestic and sexual violence in the State. After a long campaign by the National Women’s Council of Ireland, our members and women throughout the country, Ireland has finally signed the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, also known as the Istanbul Convention.

It is the first legally binding instrument, a blueprint for best practice, and it is a unique opportunity for Ireland to change its abysmal track record. The stark reality of this violence has been prominent in recent weeks as we have witnessed the horrendous murders of Natalie McGuinness and heroic Garda Tony Golden and the serious injuries to Siobhán Phillips. Violence against women leads to murders, physical injuries, mental trauma and devastation to women, children and communities. At least one in five women experience domestic and/or sexual violence. Still, so far, we as a society have failed to take these crimes seriously.

The UN committee overseeing Ireland’s compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights highlighted the legislative gaps in investigating and sanctioning perpetrators, and the hole in providing protection and assistance to survivors due to funding cuts.

Domestic violence

Frontline services in Ireland are reporting increases in demand for services by women. The Garda Inspectorate Report, a year ago, highlighted that domestic violence was a volume crime alongside burglary, with significant impact on communities.

Despite the evidence, we are still waiting to see domestic violence get the same prominent public and State response and investment as we have seen with regard to burglaries.

We will only seriously address this issue when we shift the focus from asking the woman what did she do, why was she there and why did she stay, and place the focus on men who perpetrate crimes. The Istanbul Convention provides this potential.

The convention places an obligation on Ireland to ensure gardaí respond immediately to calls and that all victims have access to special protection. And the convention deals with prevention, requiring Ireland to put in place measures to challenge attitudes, gender roles and stereotypes.

The new National Strategy on Violence Against Women presents an opportunity to deliver the resources.

Ireland will need stronger legislation. For example, domestic violence should be legislated for as a crime in itself and accompanied by appropriate sanctions. The proposed sexual offences legislation must include a definition of consent.

Ireland must address the high attrition rates within our criminal justice system and provide a supportive environment for women to continue through the system.

Barring orders

An Garda needs increased powers to issue emergency barring orders to expel a perpetrator from the home for a specified period to provide immediate protection to the victim. The new Garda unit, the Human Protective Services Bureau, is welcome but requires increased personnel and financial resources.

Specialist units in each Garda division should be established to address domestic and sexual violence and training is required to develop an expertise within the force that supports the victim and pursues perpetrators.

The convention stipulates we should have one refuge place per 10,000 of population – a target we lag well behind. We must also restore funding to frontline services.

We need commitment to fund government-led national campaigns to communicate a zero-tolerance message.

All of these changes require resources and political commitment. If we are successful, we have the potential to change our track record on violence against women and save lives.

The Istanbul Convention provides the framework to adopt a new approach and provides a mechanism to hold the Government to account.

Orla O’Connor is director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland and is chair of the Irish Observatory on Violence Against Women