NATIONAL STRATEGY ON DOMESTIC, SEXUAL AND GENDER-BASED VIOLENCE

by Caroline Fitzpatrick

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The National Strategy on Domestic, Sexual and Gender–based Violence, for the five-year period 2010–2014, was launched by the Minister for Justice and Law Reform, Mr Dermot Ahern TD, earlier this year. The strategy was produced by Cosc—the National Office for the Prevention of Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence, which was established by the government in June 2007.

Cosc has a ‘whole-of-government‘ remit and its principal focus is to coordinate the implementation of the national strategy with the six government departments and state agencies which have responsibility for developing actions under the strategy. Just as the strategy was developed in a consultative fashion, including the experience of government departments and agencies as well as NGOs, so too will the activities contained in the strategy be implemented in a partnership approach.

The strategy focuses on action to address domestic, sexual and gender-based violence perpetrated against adult men and women, including older people. It recognises that the majority, and the most severe forms, of these types of violence is perpetrated by men against women, but it also is significant in that it clearly recognises that men can and often are victims who must also be supported in their recovery. Children also become involved, sometimes as direct victims, but more often as secondary victims, especially in domestic abuse situations.

Speaking at the launch, Minister Ahern said: ‘This government is tackling the violence and abuse suffered by women and men of a sexual.and non-sexual nature, both within and outside the domestic scene. These types of crimes often happen behind closed doors where there are no witnesses or, worse still, where the only witness is a child. As a government, we are saying “No to domestic violence, no to sexual violence and no to all types of gender-based violence.”

Domestic and sexual violence are major issues in Ireland. Research shows that 29% of women and 26% of men suffer domestic abuse, when severe and minor incidents are combined. 15% of women and 6% of men have experienced severely abusive behaviour from a partner, yet only 25% of these have reported to An Garda Síochána. The vast majority of us appear to be aware of the fact that domestic violence happens. Research commissioned by Cosc shows that, while 70% of the Irish public believe that domestic abuse against women is common, a mere 38% of us would be willing to get involved and help a neighbour subjected to such abuse. The statistics for sexual violence are also worrying, with 42% of women and 28% of men experiencing some form of sexual violence in their lifetime, and only 1% of men and 7.8% of women reporting such incidents to An Garda Síochána. This situation has been consistent over recent years despite a wide range of initiatives to prevent and respond to these crimes.

Three different dimensions of abuse characterise domestic violence: physical, sexual and emotional abuse. Behaviours that commonly occur in situations of domestic violence include various forms of physical violence such as kicking, punching, slapping, smothering or choking, biting, throwing and threatening with an object. It often includes the use and abuse of children, economic abuse and the use of isolation. Controlling and intimidating behaviour are common forms of emotional abuse. Domestic and sexual violence are not identical. Sexual violence often occurs in the domestic context, but it may also be committed against a stranger.

As research shows, there is often a reluctance on the part of victims to disclose the violence or to make, or to proceed with, a complaint. There are varied and very understandable reasons for this. A victim of an assault or abusive behaviour often wishes to just get on with their life as best they can, and not attract attention to themselves. Indeed, as the majority of sexual offences are carried out by a person known to the victim, s/he will have conflicting emotions about the situation or may be concerned about being believed. This too is the case in many domestic violence situations. Isolation is a significant issue which hinders the victim in getting help and recovering from these cruel and degrading crimes.

All of us should be open to listening to a disclosure and know how to act. With the help of the various services working in this area, Cosc has developed a website showing how and where to get help. All types of people are affected by domestic and sexual violence. You never know when you may be called on to help. Let’s all be ready to do whatever we can. We are not, however, recommending that bystanders or neighbours directly confront perpetrators. The Cosc website (www.cosc.ie) has useful information on how to provide support to the victim by understanding what steps to take and where to find the support agencies that are experts in this area.

The main aim of the strategy is to prevent the violence concerned, on the one hand, and, on the other, to respond effectively to such violence. The implementation of the strategy aims to reduce the prevalence of these crimes, providing greater protection and support for the victims and survivors of such crimes, and ensuring the accountability of the perpetrators of such violence. The strategy places a high value on evaluation and evidence-based policy planning. This is critical to ensure effective interventions and best public value.

The strategy is very much an action-focussed one. Not only does it outline actions and activities, it sets out clear targets against which progress on implementation will be measured. The strategy aims to promote high-quality standards in service delivery for victims and to strengthen intra and inter organisational co-ordination.

There are many state organisations involved in providing services to those affected by domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. The direct services provided by these organisations range from services provided by general practitioners, medical personnel in accident and emergency departments and sexual assault treatment units (SATUs), counselling and family services within the child welfare and protection and family support sectors, and accommodation provided by local authorities, to legal advice and assistance on civil and criminal matters, criminal investigation, and prosecution and offender management in the justice sector.

The national strategy’s vision is that by the end of 2014 there will be a clear societal acknowedgment of the unacceptability of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. There will be greater recognition and a broader understanding of such violence. There will be greater confidence in high-quality and consistent services for victims of the violence. Crucially too, there will be increased safety for victims, and potential victims, as well as increased accountability of the perpetrators.

The 23 actions under the national strategy are being implemented by those NGOs, government departments and state agencies whose work has a direct impact on victims of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. But we cannot just leave it to them. Domestic and sexual violence is a problem for all of our society and everyone is affected by that violence, directly or indirectly. We must all play our part in building confidence amongst victims, that not only will they be believed if they report the abuse, but that we will be understanding of their difficult situation and that we will support them as service providers or neighbours.

The Minister concluded by stating: ‘Today I launch much more than a document—I launch a vision of a society that says it will not tolerate, nor remain silent on, domestic, sexual or gender-based abuse and violence against another person in our neighbourhood and community. The implementation of this strategy provides a clear direction to achieve this vision and thisgovernment is strongly committed to its implementation.’

If someone you know is a victim of domestic or sexual violence, find out how you can help at www.cosc.ie.

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