State can no longer ignore sexual violence towards teenagers

Data shows we must protect adolescents from frequent and severe bullying and abuse

“We can but speculate about how much progress could have been achieved in areas such as sexual harassment, homophobia, racism, sectarianism, sexism, if such a collection mechanism had been developed earlier.”

“We can but speculate about how much progress could have been achieved in areas such as sexual harassment, homophobia, racism, sectarianism, sexism, if such a collection mechanism had been developed earlier.”

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On Thursday the Government’s Special Rapporteur on Children, Prof Conor O’Mahony, stated plainly that the new Rape Crisis Network Ireland (RCNI) research on adolescent sexual harassment has important consequences for Government policy.

The research has “an important role in triggering the State’s obligations to act to address this issue in particular in relation to the European Convention on Human Rights which imposes obligations on states to take steps to mitigate the risks of sexual abuse and harassment. That obligation is triggered in circumstances where the State either is aware of the risk or ought to be aware of the risk.”

Much of what has been said about young people and sexual violence over the past decade has been informed by anecdote, much of the burden carried by survivors telling their individual stories, and often responded to by heartfelt hand-wringing. But a response commensurate with the scale of the problem has been absent.

As long as the evidence of harm remained anecdotal, we could plead an ignorance while we waited for the “real” evidence. In the absence of solid data on a complicated issue, this is a cautious and reasonable approach.

But there have been opportunities to generate the evidence base that would trigger action. In 2013, the RCNI published a report on older children with data from 93 per cent of survivors attending Rape Crisis Centres and the Children At Risk in Ireland (Cari) Foundation.

In this report, we called for the Department of Education to put in place a policy on sexual bullying that would include collating detailed data on sexual bullying in schools.

Monitoring framework

In 2016, Dr Niall Muldoon, the recently appointed Ombudsman for Children, also recommended to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) that State authorities should collate specific information and data on bullying countrywide. This recommendation was formally accepted by the committee and it requested that the State take action.

But as Muldoon pointed out in 2021 to a Joint Oireachtas Committee, despite the department having a monitoring framework examining schools – entitled the Anti-Bullying Procedures for Primary and Post-Primary Schools – it has persistently chosen not to ask about sexual bullying. In 2022, the State will have to account for itself again to the UNCRC and confirm that no progress has been made on the collation of sexual violence data in schools.

On Thursday, the ombudsman stated, “We believe the collection of this data by the Department of Education is long overdue. Indeed we can but speculate about how much progress could have been achieved in areas such as sexual harassment, homophobia, racism, sectarianism, sexism, if such a collection mechanism had been developed earlier.”

Dr Michelle Walsh, who carried out the new research, worked for a decade in Rape Crisis Midwest. She created a space for adolescents to speak. She recorded and counted what they told her and we have published that data. The RCNI report from her PhD launched on Thursday is called Storm and Stress. The baseline has been set.

Now the State knows, in language and form that triggers legal obligations, the lived reality of our teenagers. Now there is an evidence base that transforms a nebulous and difficult problem into a concrete and actionable reality.

Escalation of victimisation

There are three things that should particularly motivate all involved.

The first is the sheer scale of the prevalence and the severity of the experiences of adolescents with sexual violence. Those same adolescents have told us they want and believe change is possible. We need to help them create that safer world for the generations coming behind them.

Second, we know that intervention works and we know the consequences of lack of intervention. We choose a side now through our actions. Do we support the continued prevalence and escalation of victimisation and perpetration of sexual violence or do we act to break that cycle and transform our culture?

Third, outside of parenting, most engagements between adults and adolescents happen in workplaces and in leisure activities, whether that is by teachers, youth workers or others. The evidence records how the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and violence is visited upon these employees also. No employer can ignore the need to create a safe working environment while their employees are routinely subjected to sexual harassment.

Efforts across the government have been disjointed and the recent government audit of domestic sexual and gender-based violence is set to address this. There is also a national strategy being developed for 2022. As part of this strategy, all government departments and agencies have to commit to action on the legal obligations triggered by this baseline. By 2022, any period of grace is ended.

O’Mahony called this evidence base a “wake-up call”. It is also puts an end to making excuses. Yes, it’s complicated and there are challenges in mobilising the infrastructure around children towards creating change, but our children believe that change is possible and they believe we can do it.

Clíona Saidléar is executive director of the Rape Crisis Network Ireland. “Storm and Stress: An Exploration of Sexual Harassment Amongst Adolescents” is available at rcni.ie

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