In the gloom of an October evening in 1978, thousands of women brandished flaming torches and candles to protest in Dublin against the prevalence of violence and harassment against women.
From the podium an unnamed speaker announced to the crowds that change was coming. She said the country’s first rape crisis centre would be opened within weeks, and would eventually provide a 24-hour service to rape victims.
That was 45 years ago, when it wasn’t a crime to rape your wife, abortion was illegal and contraception was not available. Just five years before that the marriage bar, banning the employment of married women, was fully lifted. Just two years before that women were unable to own their home outright, and had no legal share to the family home.
Much has clearly changed since then, but the prevalence of gender-based violence is still widespread, and the services are still fragmented. The horrific death of Ashling Murphy in January – killed as she was out running along the canal in Tullamore, Co Offaly –- galvanised the nation to demand action from the State.
The publication of the new strategy on Tuesday, while overdue, was welcomed by advocacy groups, many of whom contributed painstaking work to get it over the line. The fact remains that this is a reactive strategy rather than a proactive one.
There is a grim roll call of women who have been murdered or raped in horrendous circumstances and the perpetrators either haven’t been caught or have received short sentences for the most heinous crimes such as rape.
One of the major challenges for the Government will be encouraging victims to come forward when they see the minimal sentences being handed down for crimes of a domestic and sexual nature. It is notoriously difficult for convictions of this kind of crime to be secured, which means we only know the tip of the iceberg on what is happening behind closed doors, something gardaí have acknowledged.
When Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party sat down to hammer out a programme for government it was agreed that a change of approach was desperately needed. The strategy announced on Tuesday is the third version of its kind, another attempt by the State to modernise laws around domestic and sexual violence.
Announcing the plan, Minister for Justice Helen McEntee said the strategy is “the firmest demonstration yet of Ireland’s determination to change”. While few doubt McEntee’s bone fides, there have been countless reports and strategies before this one that have gathered dust or garnered criticism.
There are four pillars to the plan: prevention, protection, prosecution and policy co-ordination.
One of the most important elements of the plan will be the new statutory agency to be established by January 2024, and which will oversee the new strategy. It will report to the minister for justice of the day.
In terms of criminal law reform, McEntee announced plans to increase the maximum sentence from five years to 10 years for assault causing harm – one of the most common charges in cases of domestic abuse. This will no doubt be a welcome change.
Separately, one of the biggest problems facing victims of domestic abuse is the lack of refuge spaces, with women reporting a postcode lottery type of situation. Under McEntee’s plan the number of refuge spaces will be doubled over the lifetime of the strategy, from 141 to 282. Refuges are often the first port of call for victims of domestic violence, and the key test will be in the delivery, but also in the quality of the spaces made available.
The Government must also address well-established problems with access to legal representation and the quality of representation.
What was announced on Tuesday was a five-year plan, with an investment of over €300 million. The money finally appears to be there, the plan is there, and the Government has given itself five years to implement it. Now in 2022, 45 years after that monumental march for women’s rights, it will clearly take more than one report to effect the change that people have called for. It will take a change of tack from reactive to proactive, and, most importantly, real delivery of the promises made.