Statements on Combating Domestic, Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

24 November 2020

Ivana Bacik

I welcome the Minister to the House and commend her on all the work she is doing on this issue. I welcome the opportunity to speak on combating domestic, sexual and gender-based violence.

I will say a little, as the Minister did, about the dreadful news of the sharing of so many intimate photos of people. This large-scale leaking of images was distressing and a horrific abuse and my colleague, Senator Hoey, will speak more on that. I want to acknowledge, as the Minister has done, that my Labour Party colleague, Deputy Howlin, brought forward a Private Members' Bill three years ago in 2017, namely the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill 2017, or Coco's law, specifically to tackle, as the Minister knows, online sexual abuse of this sort. It is welcome that it is being expedited through the Houses with Government support and I am glad that is being done. This law is long overdue and I hope it will get through the justice committee next week. I know the Minister is working with Deputy Howlin on the amendments and it will be before us in the Seanad so that we can ensure our laws are robust enough to deal with this issue.

To speak more generally about this week, tomorrow is International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. The purpose of the day is to raise awareness of the fact that women and girls around the world are subject to many forms of visible and hidden violence, as we know. Historically, the date is based on the day of the 1960 assassination of three sisters in the Dominican Republic and the theme this year is: "Fund, Respond, Prevent, Collect!". We know this is an enormous global issue, with 243 million women and girls having been abused by an intimate partner in the past year. We know that as Covid-19 took hold and as lockdown measures were implemented, violence against women, particularly within the home, intensified in different levels.

I acknowledge the immense work that has been done by so many agencies. The Minister has spoken about the Garda's Operation Faoiseamh, which has been so important. I also acknowledge the work that has been done by NGOs, such as Safe Ireland, Women's Aid and others, which have stepped up to ensure supports are in place for women and children experiencing violence.

The figures are very disturbing. Safe Ireland's Tracking the Shadow of the Pandemic report shows just how many women and children have been affected. Some 2,000 women and 411 children have been in receipt of support from services each month since March. Figures from the Garda also show very high levels of applications for barring orders each day. It behoves all of us to support measures that are being taken to help those who are suffering in this way and to ensure that we are raising awareness about the issue.

I commend ICTU, the trade union movement, which is calling on the Government to ratify ILO Convention No. 190 on eliminating violence and harassment in the world of work, as part of marking the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. The trade unions are also seeking to raise awareness about this issue. During the negotiations on the programme for Government, I called for consideration to be given to creating a dedicated ministerial position to address domestic violence and gender-based violence, because we are aware that there is an epidemic across the country.

I acknowledge the Minister's great commitment to the issue, but it is crucial that we would see strong Government leadership across Departments so that a multi-agency and multi-departmental approach is being taken. We must work with NGOs as well. The Minister and I are both speaking at a Women's Aid event tomorrow, as is President Michael D. Higgins, which will highlight intimate relationship abuse. That is an important event.

I wish to speak very briefly about two other areas. In terms of sexual abuse and rape, the Minister has referenced the report by Tom O'Malley. I agree with her that the recommendations must be implemented. We know that the 2017 Act did bring in significant reforms, including, for the first time, a statutory definition of consent, but the other recommendations on supports for victims and complainants in sex abuse cases must also be implemented. We know about the low levels of reporting. We also know about the need to fund the 16 rape crisis centres, which perform an essential service providing advice and counselling to survivors.

In the context of the sex trade, I refer to the important report by the sexual exploitation research programme, SERP, at UCD, which was launched last week. It is an important report on Part 4 of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017, which banned the purchase of sex. It showed that violence against women is endemic in the sex trade and that those who enter the sex trade do so in very constrained circumstances. Many see prostitution as an escape route from poverty but the SERP data very importantly suggest that it, in fact, entrenches poverty. I ask the Minister to take on board the important report from SERP. I am aware that there is a three-year review under way into Part 4. It is hugely important that we raise public awareness about this legislation, that we look at expunging criminal records for historical convictions related to selling sex and that we ensure training for all those involved in implementing the law.

We must fund, respond, prevent and collect data in terms of our national strategy and global strategy to tackling the endemic gender-based violence and domestic violence against women.