Violence against women in Ireland
By Deborah Condon
Violence against women and girls is a human rights and public health emergency worldwide, according to the World Health Organisation. It causes mental and physical injury, exposes women and girls to diseases and forced pregnancy, increases women’s vulnerability in all spheres of their lives and in the worst cases, ends in death.
But what about the situation in Ireland? According to a recent report from Amnesty International, violence against women in this country is widespread. Furthermore the government is not doing enough to identify, combat and redress this 'grave and systematic human rights abuse'.
This is a serious accusation, but unfortunately the facts are there to back it up. Continuing research has shown that violence against women is prevalent here, yet despite task forces, report and committees, the government has done little to actually help the victims of abuse.
The facts about levels of violence here are startling:
-The Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland (SAVI) Report (2002) found that one in four women had experienced some form of sexual abuse in their lifetime and one in five had experienced sexual assault as adults.
-In 2003, the Women's Aid helpline answered almost 13,000 calls. One in three of these related to physical violence, 13% to sexual abuse.
-Between January 1996 and the end of June 2005, 109 women were murdered in Ireland, 72 of these in their own homes. In those cases which have been resolved (up to the end of June 2005), all were perpetrated by a man and almost half were perpetrated by the woman's partner or ex-partner.
-A survey conducted by Dublin's Rotunda Maternity Hospital in 2000, found that in a sample of 400 pregnant women, one in eight had experienced abuse at the hands of their partner while pregnant.
-A survey of women attending GP surgeries in 2002 found that two in five women who had been involved in a sexual relationship with a man, had experienced violence. This violence ranged from being punched in the face to being choked.
As shocking as these figures are, it is widely accepted that they probably under-represent the true extent of the problem. This is due to significant under-reporting of violence by women. A study by Women's Aid in the mid-1990s found that only one in five women who experienced domestic violence in Ireland ever contacted the Gardai.
"While stigma and shame are still unfortunately an issue, low reporting is also due to women's lack of confidence in the justice system", explained Sean Love, director of Amnesty's Irish section.
According to the Amnesty report, most reports of violence against women do not result in a conviction and there is little monitoring of the effectiveness of legal and other measures to prevent, identify, investigate and punish this violence.
It highlights the fact that the conviction rate for domestic violence has dropped from 16% in 1997 to 6.5% in 2002, despite the introduction of the 1996 Domestic Violence Act. Furthermore the Gardai's Domestic Violence Intervention policy has not been reviewed and women experiencing domestic violence, rape and sexual assault 'report inconsistent responses' from Gardai.
Meanwhile family law courts are overstretched and victims of domestic violence can experience long delays in accessing the courts for protective orders, such as a barring order. Where these orders are obtained, they are 'not vigorously enforced'.
"The extent to which men are charged with appropriate criminal offences for acts of violence in the family is unknown, but it is believed that they are often charged with least serious offences, such as breaching a barring order", the report said.
It notes that the effectiveness of the justice system and its sensitivity towards women experiencing violence has not been the subject of any official government review to date.
So what has the government done? Well way back in 1997, it published the Report of the Task Force on Violence Against Women. This contained comprehensive proposals for a coordinated, coherent and integrated response to violence against women. This, the task force said, should be done through the development of services and preventative strategies and the improvement of legislation and law enforcement.
However two crucial components of the report were never implemented - a national strategy on violence against women and 'monitoring and evaluating systems' for the planning and delivery of the measures it proposes.
Also in 1997, a National Steering Committee on Violence Against Women was established to implement the task force's report. However according to Amnesty, this committee 'has not been enabled to adequately fulfil any of its original nine functions'.
Amnesty also notes that funding for frontline services, which offer essential support to victims, remains fixed at the 2003 allocation. This means that despite more people attempting to avail of these services, funding has not increased in two years.
"What Amnesty highlights in its report is pervasive and avoidable state failure to protect women from serious violations of their human rights", Mr Love said.
However Amnesty also emphasises the role Irish society should be playing in tackling this issue.
"We, Irish society, have both the power and the responsibility to finally end this abuse. Individuals are crucial to the eradication of this human rights violation. Violence against women is not a private matter - it is everyone's business."
The Amnesty report, Justice and Accountability: Stop Violence Against Women, was published in June, 2005.
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