The Government’s domestic, sexual and gender-based violence strategy is the product of 18 months of work. In fact, the five-year plan to enforce “zero tolerance” for rape, sexual violence and domestic abuse is the primary thing the Department of Justice has been working on since late 2020.
Justice Minister Helen McEntee has the bittersweet benefit of having been in office at a time when a number of tragic and horrifying cases focused minds at the Cabinet and kitchen tables on the issue of violence against women.
First came Covid-19.
Shortly after the virus arrived in Ireland, distressing evidence emerged to suggest the pandemic had created greater opportunities for domestic abusers to harass and torture their victims.
Then came a slew of high-profile cases of extreme and lethal violence against women. Sources close to the strategy said this helped the Department of Justice as people in Government, and society more generally, knew it was long past the time to get this right.
The new strategy will increase resources and introduce harsher sentences, but it is also a whole-of-government project designed to improve education, awareness, and behaviour.
This five-year plan will be fully funded and its success or failure will be measured by targets and timelines.
There may be some disappointment at the extent of the promised increase in the number of domestic abuse refuges. While a rise from 141 spaces to at least more than 280 is to be welcomed, it still puts us well behind where we need to be.
According to the Istanbul Convention on combating violence against women and domestic violence, states need one refuge space for every 10,000 people. Now that Ireland has over five million people, we need at least 500 spaces and are a long way off.
Every day, women and children are turned away from refuges – putting them in a potentially deadly position.
The housing crisis has also put pressure on women to remain in dangerous homes, or risk making themselves and their children homeless.
The lack of affordable accommodation for survivors to move on to means they are staying in refuges for longer – further reducing the availability of spaces.
Sources close to the strategy are candid, saying yes, they are starting from a very low base and people might reasonably ask why an increase of 140 refuge spaces couldn’t be done in one year rather than five.
But the Government argues that the strategy will put in place key infrastructure for opening new refuges – infrastructure which frankly doesn’t exist now – and this will allow the minister who leads the next strategy in five years’ time to aim for the 500 refuge space target.
It is understood there will also be measures to improve the collection and understanding of data about violence against women.
At the moment, Ireland is operating in a bit of a vacuum. While we have statistics for the numbers of assaults and rapes reported every year, it is well known that victims are reluctant to go to the gardaí or even to rape crisis centres.
The last time Ireland carried out a reliable nationwide study of people’s experiences of sexual violence, known as the SAVI report, was 2002.
The Government didn’t commission another one until 2018, and the results have not yet been published.