There is a saying that a nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest and most vulnerable members. This reflects poorly on our government, which has cut funding to rape crisis centres by 25 per cent since 2008.
The reduction amounts to €1.4 million, a sum so small when compared to the general government budget that one wonders why it was not possible to pass it along to bank bondholders instead.
A climate of fear has spread throughout the rape crisis centres, as revealed in interviews with their managers conducted as part of a University College Dublin academic research project assessing the social impacts of fiscal consolidation measures since 2008. Managers said they worry criticising the cuts will lead to further reductions in funding from Tusla, which has taken over financing from the Health Service Executive.
One manager stated the Government “has cut front-line services so much that it’s become impossible to operate” adequately.
It is estimated funding should be at least €20 million, or five times current levels, to provide adequate services. This golden plan would still be insignificant compared to the State’s overall budget.
But caring for victims of sexual violence is not a Government priority. When I asked the HSE about funding cuts to individual centres, HSE officers had to dig out and collate the data for me.
The cuts have been uneven. Centres that have absorbed the largest budgetary reductions include Tullamore (-39 per cent), Athlone (-34 per cent) and Cork, Carlow, Kilkenny, Kerry and Mayo (all at -25 per cent). Those that have seen the lightest cuts are Galway (-8 per cent), Donegal and Dundalk (both at -12 per cent).
The cuts highlight the political nature of austerity, which is not about reviving the economy in a downturn. It is only through a great leap of the imagination that one could argue that withdrawing services to rape victims will make Ireland more competitive economically vis-a-vis Germany and the world.
Austerity also has a gender dimension. Consider those two resounding numbers: 87 per cent of victims of rape or sexual violence are women or girls, and conversely, 98 per cent of perpetrators of all incidents are men.
The centres provide important services. The latest annual data shows about 2,500 people take up counselling annually. And the effects are undoubtedly positive. Among many testimonies from victims, one said: “This support group helped me realise that I was not alone and I was able to open up without fear of retribution. It will have an everlasting positive effect on me to carry in the future.”
The centres already rely on the help of many volunteers, and this trend has accentuated under austerity.
Also, crucial work has had to be downgraded or eliminated, such as prevention and education programmes with young people in schools about the notion of consent in sexual matters.
Moreover, outreach work has been curtailed. Rural areas have been particularly affected because such reductions in service provision often mean longer travel time to reach services, with the result that many victims are simply no longer able to avail of the counselling they need. This is true, for example, in Mayo, Enda Kenny’s constituency.
As for many austerity cuts, the negative repercussions will often be felt later, when more incidents of sexual violence happen due to a lack of awareness about the problem.
To make matters worse, cutbacks have led to some degree of infighting among the centres, affecting their co-ordination – and ultimately victims.
A few centres seem to have opted to lobby the Government and cosy up to it to obtain more funding for themselves, rather than form a common front with the other centres against the cuts. These dynamics have been confirmed to me in discussions with rape crisis managers and workers.
Negotiations with State
Such divisions are not healthy and lead to unexpected reactions. For example, I recently received a rather agitated call from a manager at one of the main centres telling me I should not write articles denouncing cuts because this impedes her efforts to negotiate with the Government to obtain funding.
The manager even described the Government as relatively generous because it had announced that no further cuts would be applied for 2015 – never mind the 25 per cent drop since 2008, it seems.
We thus have a somewhat surreal situation where some rape crisis centres are against criticism of cuts to services for victims of rape.
Doing away with austerity for such essential services would reduce such counter-productive internal tensions, and benefit victims.
Julien Mercille is a lecturer at University College Dublin. His book on the effects of austerity in Ireland, Europe's Treasure Ireland (Palgrave), is out. Twitter: @JulienMercille