The announcement by Justice Minister Helen McEntee that undocumented migrants will be given a pathway to citizenship under a new scheme is an important announcement for women vulnerable to sexual exploitation, women in the sex trade and those being trafficked.
It follows recent commitments to a victim-centred approach, by establishing a ‘Victim’s Journey’ through the criminal justice system and also, the introduction of legislation to strengthen the monitoring of sex offenders to prevent re-victimisation. These changes come against the backdrop of the pandemic shining a glaring spotlight on the scourge of violence against women, whereby the lives of women experiencing abuse have become even more unbearable due to the impact of Covid restrictions and not enough timely and appropriate supports, with long waiting lists for frontline services and refuges.
But legislation is only one part of the picture; how legislation gets implemented depends on Ireland having a more joined-up approach with strong and focused leadership at the most senior level of Government.
We need to see a significant political, policy and cultural shift across our State agencies and government departments that recognise the endemic problem of violence against women and the devastating impact it has on the lives of women and children and on our society. At its worst, violence against women has meant six women have been killed in Ireland this year. There are on average 63 applications for domestic violence orders each day and 120 domestic violence calls to An Garda Síochána. And everyday women and girls experience sexual harassment online and in person that limits their freedoms in our society. The Governments is preparing its new National Strategy for Domestic Sexual and Gender-based Violence to be launched in 2022. This is the moment for ambition and leadership to tackle gender-based violence seriously.
We need to see significant investment in frontline services, a shift in approach to being truly victim and survivor centred. In practice, that means a system of wrap-around supports from the moment women come forward to seek support and disclose abuse and an end to the piecemeal manner in which supports are currently received.
In the case of domestic abuse, currently a woman is having to seek support in multiple ways, telling her story multiple times and deal with multiple agencies, such as An Garda Síochána, Tusla, civil courts and criminal courts. Often, the experience of women is dealing with officials who lack empathy and understanding of the impact of domestic violence and coercive control. This is a traumatising process.
One example of this is the fact that a woman will have to go through criminal courts to secure a conviction, and separately through the civil courts for matters such as custody and separation. This fragmentation of services is led at senior level as different government departments have partial responsibility for policy and service delivery.
The system acts as a barrier to continue to hold the perpetrator to account. It’s exhausting for women to fight through every process; it’s not surprising that women often don’t pursue convictions. Perpetrators, predominately men, know this too and so the cycle continues.
Now is a real opportunity to bring critical change; there is greater recognition and understanding from our experience of Covid and of more widespread disclosures of the reality and prevalence of domestic and sexual violence. We need to see an integrated approach – one Government department with overall responsibility and accountability for tackling gender-based violence and delivering overdue supports.
Currently, the policy and legislation responsibilities sit with the Department of Justice, while the frontline services and the responsibility for funding them rests with Tusla. It will be a real test of this Government’s commitment to ending violence against women and the disjointed manner in which gender-based violence is dealt.
The majority of violence against women is hidden and unreported. There are still too many barriers in place that dissuade women from reporting. It is crucial that we commit to putting in place effective measures to combat and eliminate violence and to create a society where violence against women is unacceptable and abhorrent to all of us.
Orla O’Connor is Director of the National Women’s Council