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My Speech on Violence Against Women | Statements on Violence Against Women | Wednesday, 19th January 2022

19 January 2022

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate, on behalf of the Labour Party. We speak today following the horrific killing of Ashling Murphy in Tullamore, County Offaly last week.

At the outset, I wish to express my heartfelt sympathies and condolences to Ashling Murphy’s family, her partner and friends, and to her community.

There has been an immense outpouring of national grief over the last week, with tens of thousands of people attending vigils in Ireland and further afield. We are all mourning Ashling’s death, but none so much as those who knew her. Now, we must give her loved ones the support and the space that they need.

The killing of Ashling has generated an immense outpouring of anger at the extent of violence against women. It has reminded us of so many other horrific killings of women in this country. This Thursday marks one year since the violent attack on Urantsetseg Tserendorj not far from here at the IFSC. Our thoughts are with her family and friends as we approach that tragic anniversary.

Ashling’s killing reminds us that, as Women’s Aid have reported, 244 women have died violently since 1996. 152 of these women were killed in their own homes and 87% by a man known to them.[1]

It has also served to remind us of the extent to which all women and girls are daily subjected to harassment, abuse, violence and assault by men.

While such violence is only perpetrated by a small number of men, the fear of violence is experienced by all women, all of us who have grown up and live within a culture in misogyny and sexism are tolerated – and far too few men step up to challenge it.

It is especially important therefore today that we legislators reflect on our task to ensure that this culture is challenged. We need to see violence against women, and all forms of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence condemned and consigned to history.

In order to do this, we must address not only the violent attacks and abuse but also the micro-aggressions, the acts of so-called casual or everyday sexism by a small minority of men - that have the effect of leaving all women and girls in fear.

All of us change our behaviour and modify our movements all the time because of this fear. We all check ourselves everyday, everywhere we go. Is it safe to walk or cycle down this street; to get into this taxi; to jog in this park or along this canal.

This fear; this need to engage in constant risk monitoring all the time - is so instilled in us from an early age that it has now become unconscious for most of us. Yet it takes a horrific killing like that of Ashling Murphy to remind us that it is not acceptable that we put up any longer with this constant fear and risk-monitoring – this must be a watershed moment for us all.

It’s simply not acceptable that men and boys continue to engage in sexist or misogynistic jeering, catcalling, harassment or groping of women and girls; it’s not ok that we women all have to constantly modify our behaviour accordingly; that for instance teenage girls have all but stopped cycling because of this almost routine harassment that so many experience or fear experiencing.

It’s time to engage in a radical culture shift. To adopt a policy nationally of Zero Tolerance against violence against women in all its many forms.

We know that the common strand in gender-based violence worldwide is an imbalance of power between men and women; the gender inequality that in so many countries like our own leaves women with less power and less status in society. That power imbalance must be addressed.

I am glad to hear the Taoiseach announce the convening of a meeting of all party leaders on gender based violence.

In my role as incoming Chairperson of the Special Oireachtas Committee on Gender Equality I will be working with colleagues on a cross-party basis to see the implementation of the Citizens’ Assembly recommendations, which address this gender inequality through 45 recommendations and which in particular have called for radical change on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence through a set of five sensible and clear recommendations. Our Committee is meeting again next week to draw up a timetable and work programme.

But here’s what we need to do now - building on those recommendations.

First, we need a Cabinet Minister – most appropriately the Justice Minister - to take the lead in co-ordinating and implementing all strategies to prevent and counter all forms of violence against women. Not only must the Minister urgently publish the promised strategy on genderbased violence, but she must also urgently commission the updated SAVI report, giving us proper data building on the 2002 report. We need to establish the true extent to which women are subjected to violence and abuse.

Second, we need urgently to roll out a public awareness campaign focused on prevention and education, for children in all schools through the RSE programme – with no opt-outs for any school whatever its ethos. And we need a public awareness programme for adults too – to challenge misogyny and sexism; to get the message out there that there is Zero Tolerance for violence against women.

And thirdly, we need to implement the criminal justice reforms recommended by the O’Malley report and committed to by the Dept of Justice in Supporting a Victim’s Journey.

As part of this, we must ensure better supports for victims and survivors, with reform of the courts system, specialist training for judges, gardai and practitioners; rolling out of a network of victims support services and putting in place adequate provision of shelters for those who have suffered domestic violence.

Specific measures on domestic violence require urgent implementation. Unfortunately, we know that rates of domestic violence have increased dramatically during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In spite of the grim reality, the seriousness, frequency and pervasiveness of the violence labelled ‘domestic’ is often played down. The shocking reality of the nature of this violence must be named.

The advocacy and work of feminist campaigners and organisations, such as Women’s Aid, the National Women’s Council of Ireland, Safe Ireland, the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre and the Rape Crisis Network have challenged pervasive sexist myths and generated greater understanding about gender-based violence.

This new understanding has led to many positive recent law reforms, including the introduction of a new statutory definition of ‘consent’ in 2017 to assist in the prosecution of rape cases.

A new offence of ‘coercive control’ has also been created in the 2018 Domestic Violence Act – in recognition of the fact that, in many domestic violence cases, a pattern of intimidatory and controlling behaviour is evident, which affects the confidence and quality of life of the person victimised.

Other immensely positive legal changes for women have occurred in recent years. I think of the successful repeal of the Eighth Amendment in 2018; the other new measures introduced in 2017 and 2018 giving stronger protections for victims of domestic and sexual assault; and the recent passage of Coco’s Law tackling online harassment, stewarded by my colleague Brendan Howlin TD.

These changes have been hard-won, brought about largely because of the brave women who spoke out about their experiences as victims and as survivors; and the advocacy of others supporting them.

Despite these very positive changes, a core problem with the criminal law is that it is generally designed to deal with isolated events.

It can be difficult to apply in the context of an ongoing abusive relationship; it also cannot address the degradation of women where no crime has been committed.  

Indeed, we know that a great deal of gender-based violence goes unreported at all. It has also been revealed that reporting is often not enough with inadequate followup by police and prosecutors. I note the findings of an internal Garda investigation which revealed that more than 3,000 domestic violence 999 calls had been cancelled.[2]

So I welcome news from the Minister for Justice that the publication of the National Strategy for Domestic, Sexual and Gender-Based Violence is imminent. It must be implemented quickly.

The law is only one part of the solution.

A whole package of other measures is necessary too, such as the provision of shelters for victims and their children and adequate resources for support groups. I note that Rape Crisis Centres across the country have warned year-on-year of the chronic underfunding of their sector. The Istanbul Convention recommends one shelter space to every 10,000 people in Ireland, but our current provision of less than 150 beds falls far short on this.

We need a fundamental change of emphasis – to move towards tackling the perpetrators and preventing the abuse, rather than constantly trying to mend the damage that abusers do.

The ubiquity of gender-based violence weighs heavily on every woman. It limits our access to public spaces, and it can prevent us from realising our full potential as equal citizens. So we need men to listen and learn, to understand the collective experiences of women; to step up and challenge misogyny and sexism.

In debates such as this, we rightly focus on the most extreme manifestations of a culture in which violence against women is tolerated.

However, especially given the gender imbalance in this House, where less than a quarter of our TDs are women, I think it is important to remind colleagues of the chilling effect of sexism, misogyny, mansplaining, sexist comments, exclusion and other micro-aggressions on the day-to-day lives of all women too.

It falls to us all – women and men- to take a stand against sexism, to take responsibility for ensuring that ours is a safe and equal country for all our women and girls.