Leadership needed to lift veil of secrecy on domestic abuse
The recent UN International Day of Elimination of Violence against Women shone a welcome spotlight on an area of our society that too often exists on the margins, shrouded in shame. At this time of year, we need to remember all those who experience such violence.
Stories that victims shared of rape, trafficking, forced female genital mutilation, stalking, domestic violence and online abuse evoked feelings of shock, anger and dismay. But will they be enough to make a difference or will we just see another turn on the 'world day' carousel?
There's a General Election looming and while violent crime is a mainstream issue, that isn't the case when it's between partners - there aren't many votes in domestic violence.
But if we are truly seeking to build a better society, then it is clear that eliminating violence against women and the attitudes that lead to it must be a priority.
The first step is to acknowledge that this is not a minor issue. Statistics from advocacy and support group Women's Aid make that clear that thousands of women become victims each year.
In 2014, Women's Aid were alerted to 16,464 incidents of domestic violence against women, 10,653 incidents of emotional abuse, 2,470 incidents of physical abuse and, alarmingly, 595 incidents of sexual abuse including 176 rapes.
These statistics represent the incidents reported to just one support group - the real figures are certain to be much higher. I know from my own experience as a family law solicitor that it is not confined to any particular class or creed.
Domestic violence hides behind closed doors. The black eye can be covered with make-up. The perpetrator, in the absence of a barring order, can remain in the family home. Life goes on, until the next time - yet the emotional scars can last a lifetime.
At present, Ireland doesn't have the legislative framework to adequately combat domestic violence. There is too long a gap between the victim having to apply for a protection order and getting the perpetrator out of the house.
Meanwhile, younger couples who don't live together (and who make up 16pc of the enquiries to Women's Aid) are unable to obtain a protection order as domestic violence legislation doesn't apply to them.
There is also the issue of online abuse. According to a recent EU study, 12pc of Irish women over the age of 15 have been stalked, with 50pc of them being stalked, physically and online, by a partner or former partner. Current laws are unfit to combat online abuse and harassment of women. Yet, this year we signed up to a convention that could immeasurably improve how we deal with the causes and effects of violence against women. The Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence has been signed by 40 countries. More importantly, it has been ratified by 19 - of which Ireland is not yet one.
The Convention is effectively a means by which the victim can remain in the home (often with the dependent children) and the perpetrator can be immediately removed from the property.
Under current legislation, the victim and her children have to flee their home to find alternative accommodation and shelter until she can apply for an interim protection order - protection orders are only available during office hours and not at the weekend when the courts are closed.
Even where she is successful securing an interim protection order, she will be waiting at least four months for a barring or safety order trial date.
This cannot be allowed to continue. An interim protection order means that the gardaí can be called in the event of further abuse or violence, but it does not mean that the perpetrator has to leave the property.
Notwithstanding the unique difficulty the convention presents in relation to property rights under the constitution, we simply cannot allow this to take priority over the safety of women and children.
Furthermore, we need to extend the remit for barring and safety orders to women who are in relationships, not just living together. Domestic violence legislation needs to extend into this territory and protect women who are stalked (online and off), controlled, harassed or threatened.
According to Women's Aid, 55pc of women murdered since 1996 were killed by their partners or ex-partners. Victims often blame themselves despite the fact that domestic violence is largely caused by misogyny and can escalate if not curtailed at the very outset.
The Istanbul Convention applies a gold-standard to deal with this. It entails a specific monitoring system where governments will have to report on progress, while committees will ensure there is state compliance.
The convention embodies a zero tolerance principle for violence against women, and uses three pillars to ensure this: prevention, protection and prosecution.
Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald has given a commitment to ratifying the Istanbul Convention. This is welcome because it would move Ireland beyond the aspirational by committing the Government to achieving tangible outcomes on eliminating violence against women. But she must ensure that action comes soon and does not fall victim to other political and electoral imperatives.
Josepha Madigan is a solicitor and Fine Gael election candidate.