The Irish Times view on sexual harassment: a social emergency

The willingness of people to report crimes of sexual violence reflects an increase in public support and their own empowerment

Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan at the launch No Excuses, a national awareness campaign on sexual harassment and sexual violence, in Dublin last week. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/ Collins

Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan at the launch No Excuses, a national awareness campaign on sexual harassment and sexual violence, in Dublin last week. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/ Collins

 

When Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan publicly declares that attitudes and behaviour towards sexual harassment and violence must change, you know there is a social emergency. Decades of under-reporting and under-recording of sexual crimes helped to create a smug, superior view of Irish conduct. That conceit has been blown away, however, by improved Garda statistics and by an international survey that found Ireland to have the highest level of sexual harassment in Europe.

Even before public complacency was punctured by these findings, the deeply conservative Department of Justice was preparing for the worst. Two years ago, it commissioned the Central Statistics Office to conduct a survey of sexual violence that will not be ready until 2022. At the same time, Garda statistics were showing a sharp rise in reported sexual crimes. Women made up 82 per cent of the 2,771 complainants in 2018. One-quarter of the offences referred to childhood abuse and were more than 10 years old.

The willingness of people to report crimes of sexual violence reflects an increase in public support and their own empowerment. But much remains to be done, particularly in relation to sexual harassment in the workplace. Legislation has been passed, but enforcement is weak. The number of legal firms advertising for business in this area would suggest many employers are failing in their responsibilities. The National Women’s Council concentrated on sexual harassment and violence at third level institutions, where 70 per cent of young women were affected. Universities are also spending money on the issue.

Sexual violence and bullying in the home persists. Flanagan spoke of the need for a “public conversation” to challenge established attitudes and behaviour when he launched a “No Excuses” multi-media campaign that will run for two years. It will identify sexual harassment of both men and women in various settings. The Minister said attitudes must change because “most of our behaviour is clearly unacceptable and criminal”. That about sums it up.

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