A doubling of sentences for assault and a 100 per cent increase in refuge places are at the centre of the Government’s new €363 million five-year strategy to tackle domestic and gender-based violence.
Details of the Zero Tolerance strategy to tackle domestic, sexual and gender-based violence plan will be announced by Minister for Justice Helen McEntee and Taoiseach Michaél Martin on Tuesday. Included in its 144 actions will be an increased focus on hearing the experiences of children living with domestic violence.
Coming amid surges in cases of abuse to helplines and the courts since the pandemic, the plan was “the most ambitious ever”, said Ms McEntee. It will be overseen by a new statutory agency with “real teeth, timelines and funding”, to be fully operating by January 1st, 2024.
The plan, which has four “pillars” – protection, prevention, prosecution and policy co-ordination – will see the number of refuge spaces increase from 141 to 280 and ensure no county is without safe places for women to flee. The maximum sentence for assault causing harm – one of the most common offences in domestic abuse cases – will double from five years to 10.
Other key actions will include increased training across frontline services, particularly for healthcare workers, to recognise domestic violence and refer victims to appropriate supports and services.
Ms McEntee said tackling domestic and gender-based violence was her “main priority” when she became Minister. “I am kind of at the point where enough is enough. I know too many people who have been in [abusive] relationships and... they feel they weren’t listened to, they weren’t dealt with properly.”
Attitudes underpinning violence against women had worsened in some respects, she said.
“I am terrified of my son getting older and knowing how people engage with each other, how things have moved online. Porn is so freely available. People have different perspectives on what a healthy relationship is,” said the Minister. “I think it has shifted even since I was younger and if we don’t deal with it now, it is going to get even worse.”
Acknowledging the increased number of refuges would still fall short of the 340 extra places needed to comply with the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention, ratified by Ireland in July 2019, Ms McEntee said it was what could be achieved “in the first five years” and more would be added.
The first 24 new spaces will be open by the start of 2024, with 98 more a year after that and the final 14 in the last year of the strategy.
A dearth of refuge spaces – including none in nine counties – led to 62 per cent of requests for refuge being turned down last year. Women’s Aid, the lead non-statutory organisation responding to domestic violence, last year recorded 10 per cent more disclosures (33,831) compared with the previous year (29,717).
Projects to increase awareness, and “change the widespread attitudes which underpin domestic, sexual and gender-based violence” would be rolled out, beginning with national school-age children, through the education system and in wider society, said Ms McEntee.
While past plans had made progress, there was a moment now, since Covid and particularly since the killing of schoolteacher Ashling Murphy in January, when people’s minds were “really focused”, she said.
“I think we have an opportunity now. The very fact that we see colleagues in Poland and Hungary actually talking about pulling out of the Istanbul Convention. There is just this feeling, whatever about Roe V Wade now too, there is a feeling of going back a little, so it’s important to push back.”