Dáil debates

Wednesday, 29 June 2022

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence

9:12 am

Photo of Jennifer Carroll MacNeillJennifer Carroll MacNeill (Dún Laoghaire, Fine Gael)
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Yesterday was a very significant and important day with the publication of the third national strategy on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. I thank the Minister and congratulate her on her work in steering the Department towards the strategy's publication yesterday. It is an extremely far-reaching strategy but its real strength is that it has been built on exceptional collaboration between the Government and the sector, including the service providers in the area of domestic violence and NGOs representing women and men who have experienced such difficulties in their homes and workplaces and on our streets for many years. This strategy and the implementation plan that goes with it are a real step forward by the State. What will be important now is how we measure its implementation by the various Departments, including the Departments of Education, Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, and Justice, because the implementation plan is very detailed. I congratulate the Minister on that.

The reason we need this strategy is well known and that has been especially the case over the Covid-19 period. This year, facilitated by the Ceann Comhairle, I have been reading into the Dáil record the names of the far too many women who have died at the extreme end of gender violence, that is, femicide. The 244 women who have died in violent circumstances over the last 25 years have been identified by Women's Aid. If the Leas-Cheann Comhairle does not mind, I will read out the names of those who died in the months of July and August in each of past 25 years.

Those who died in July were Jamie Maughan Farrelly, Xiang Yi Wang, Eileen Coyne, Bridget McFadden, Margaret Concannon, Carmel Marrinan, Elizabeth Troy, Paiche Onyemaechi, Sheola Keaney, Mary Sleator, Linda Evans Christian, Catherine McEnery, Nicola Vonkova, Nora Kiely, Marie Quigley, Deirdre Jacob and Debbie Fox.

Those who died in August were Margaret O’Sullivan, Maura McKinney, Fiona Pender, Catherine Doyle, Margaret Murphy, Chantal Bergeron, Carmel Coyne, Mook Ah Mooi, Lynette McKeown, Frances Ralph, Ann Walsh, Breda Ryan, Jean Gilbert, Eugenia Bratis, Elizabeth Duff, Jacqueline McDonagh, Elaine O'Hara, Aleksandra Sarzynska, Carol McAuley, Clodagh Hawe, Antoinette Corbally and Neasa Murray.

Sometimes, when names are read out like that it can seem like a list. It can seem a little prosaic but every single one of those names is a woman who died in violent circumstances. Every single one is a woman who is missed by her family and friends. Friends and families of those women have contacted me since, not to thank me but to acknowledge their remembrance in the Dáil. It is the reason this Government and the Minister have been working so hard towards this strategy and towards developing a culture of zero tolerance.

Of course, the issue is not just femicide but everything before that point. It is every measure of harassment and every entry-level aggression. It is all the things that contribute to making women feel unsafe and make all the women inside and outside the Oireachtas act differently from their male counterparts, whether it is in the workplace or when going home at night on public transport. It is all the things women have had to put up with and which, at the very extreme end, can result in what I have described. This strategy paves the way towards helping to reach the serious cultural change that I hope will underpin a different experience for the next generation over the coming 25 years from the experience of the generation that has gone before.

Photo of Helen McEnteeHelen McEntee (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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I thank Deputy Carroll MacNeill for raising this issue. In particular, I thank her for the way in which she has remembered and acknowledged each and every one of those women who, as she rightly said, died in such violent ways in the past number of years. The memories of those women and their families and friends, and the memories of the many other women who have been victims of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, were at the forefront of all our minds yesterday and over the last 18 months or two years as this strategy was developed and launched.

What is different about this strategy is that we worked in a real spirit of collaboration. My Department worked very closely with Safe Ireland, the National Women's Council of Ireland and every Department across government to make sure we produced a whole-of-government strategy that works very closely with those who are working on the front line with women, men and children day in, day out. Above all, it is to make sure that we as a Government come together to make sure this is a priority for us.

This €363 million strategy is built on the four pillars of the Istanbul Convention, namely, prevention, protection, prosecution and policy co-ordination. Above all, it has set a very ambitious target of zero tolerance for any kind of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence and, indeed, the attitudes that underpin it. I have been asked many times what we mean when we say zero tolerance. It is about changing attitudes and perceptions and how we deal with domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. For all of us, it is about changing hearts and minds. To paint a picture, it is about not accepting violence, abuse, sexual abuse or any type of abuse, financial or otherwise, simply because it happens in a family unit behind closed doors.

It is about all of us. We have all been guilty of laughing off comments or saying it is only a joke, of just walking away from someone when they are pestering us and saying we will leave them to it. It is also about getting back to the basics. At this stage, I think we all agree that we cannot simply say we should not talk to young children about these issues because they would not understand. Younger children are coming into contact with these issues more and more. It is important that we talk to young people from primary school age right up to secondary school and beyond about relationships and the difference between a healthy relationship and an unhealthy one, and as they get older what a healthy sexual relationship should be like.

What we have tried to do in this strategy, under all of the 144 actions, was focus on education and raising awareness of all of these issues and how we can better protect survivors. There is a very clear commitment to double the number of refuge spaces and accommodation that we currently have, which is not enough. We have 141 spaces, which is simply not enough. We are promising in this strategy to double the number and to go beyond what is in the strategy. It is important that we get the structure right and to do that we will work very closely with the sector and ensure the resources that are put in place are specific to the needs of women and children. We must also make sure there are spaces available for men because while this issue predominantly impacts women, it also impacts men.

From a justice point of view, this is about being tough on perpetrators and making sure that if a person commits a crime, there is a penalty and a sentence at the end of process. We must also try to ensure we reform and rehabilitate and also have perpetrator programmes.

The final piece of the puzzle relates to policy co-ordination. The new strategy has a very clear implementation plan, dates, timelines and actions. It allows us to make sure we are doing the work we have said we will do. For the first time, we will put on a statutory footing a single agency that will have sole responsibility for domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. Under its auspices, we will deliver the services, improve standards and bring everyone together to ensure we implement this plan and it ultimately changes the behaviours we are trying to change.

9:22 am

Photo of Jennifer Carroll MacNeillJennifer Carroll MacNeill (Dún Laoghaire, Fine Gael)
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The implementation plan is crucial. Members of Government parties, the Opposition and the sector will rightly hold the Department and the agency to account on that. The plan shows a clear commitment to set out quarter by quarter exactly what is intended to be delivered by each Department. That is the only way to ensure implementation on a cross-government basis.

What the Minister said about education and the relationships and sexuality education programme is very important. It is core to this. Family law reform is also central to the issue. I have spoken to many different people who are experiencing ongoing controlling behaviours through the court processes. One of the ultimate abuses is to use one of the processes of the State against a partner or former partner to continue to exert control. It is one of the first issues I spoke about in the Dáil, and it goes on and on. It is a core part of this strategy. We have much improved the victim experience in court, but we have more to do. The crucial issue occurs before we get to court.

As the Minister indicated, it is about being believed. That is one side of the coin. All of us, including me, have laughed off comments and experiences. The only reason we did so was that the alternative was that we would not get a hearing, would not be believed or would not be taken seriously. It is simply easier to laugh off these things. That is why the zero tolerance approach is so important.

The video that was shown at the launch was exceptional. I hope it is pushed out more broadly because it really speaks to the experience of having a hand placed in appropriately on the shoulder or lower back and how that makes a person feel smaller. We know how difficult it is for a woman in that context to turn away or say something and to try not to disrupt the dynamic that is going on around her, despite it not being in any way her fault. It is about all of those small things. I hope everybody learned a great deal about that over the past two years. We have much more to do. I hope the video can get a much broader hearing. I know there is funding in the package to try to do exactly that public awareness piece.

Photo of Helen McEnteeHelen McEntee (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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On the Deputy's final point, there is funding available, and it will be part of the strategy to make sure we get that message across. It is important that we communicate what we are doing. Part of the role of the agency will be to work very closely with the sector in the way we have been doing. There is a campaign to raise awareness of the supports that are available and make it part of people's day-to-day thinking that this is an issue on which we need to respond and that we should not tolerate any longer.

As regards education, while the focus on children is important, so too is the education of front-line professionals. As the Deputy said, when a person takes the step to come forward and even before he or she thinks about court, we must ensure the first person to whom he or she speaks, be it a healthcare professional, a member of An Garda Síochána or a counsellor, is trained and there is an understanding of the trauma the person may have gone through. There is significant focus in the Supporting a Victim's Journey plan, which has been translated and expanded in this strategy, to make sure this is not just about members of An Garda Síochána and the legal profession but that it goes even further and we have a very clear understanding of what a child, a person from a Roma or Traveller background, someone who has been sexually exploited or somebody from the LGBTQI+ community goes through and that we can respond to his or her needs.

As regards family law reform, the strategy works with a number of different strands in place in my Department and across many other Departments. I mentioned Supporting a Victim's Journey. There is also the issue of family law reform. The family court Bill will be brought to Cabinet before the summer recess and the family justice strategy that will accompany the Bill indicates the very clear need to ensure intersectionality between a civil case and a criminal case. As Deputy Carroll MacNeill stated, so often the abuse continues into the civil courts. There must be a way that we can prevent such abuse from continuing. In addition, we must ensure that legal professionals and others, in particular judges, are trained to understand such abuse. That is why it is so important that we have family courts that are specific to family cases and that judges are trained to deal with these types of issues. We are going even beyond that in this strategy to look at whether we will have judges trained specifically for domestic, sexual and gender-based violence.

I again thank the Deputy for raising this issue, on which I look forward to working with her and other Members.