Sinead Moriarty: State must do more to tackle scourge of domestic violence
There are many election issues being pushed to the fore, but can any be more important than domestic violence? In a modern country with a well-educated population, the scourge of violence towards women and girls continues.
The most recent records show that in 2014, 9,500 women and over 3,000 children received support or accommodation from a domestic violence service in Ireland.
The Safe Ireland network said that it had the highest demand for accommodation on record last year with 4,800 pleas for secure shelter that were never met.
The link between domestic violence and homelessness is one that is not being faced up to and one that the next government needs to address.
"We are seeing children growing up in refuges - spending their formative years living in emergency accommodation," said Sharon O'Halloran, chief executive of Safe Ireland.
No child should grow up in a refuge and yet 2,309 children are currently living in refuges. The housing shortage has made things even worse.
Domestic violence is the most under-reported and unprosecuted crime in this country. In 2014, the European Union agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) found that 79pc of women in Ireland who had experienced physical or sexual violence had not reported it.
Women are not reporting the violence because they don't feel heard and they don't feel helped by the Government and the legal system in this country.
The current Government has made welcome inroads into the area of domestic violence. The recent publication of the 'Second National Strategy on Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence' was a big step forward.
The vision for this strategy is to make Ireland a safer place and it is structured around three main goals: prevention, which includes awareness raising, training and education; services to victims; and holding perpetrators to account and data gathering, monitoring and research.
Under the strategy, the Government has committed to spending €950,000 on an awareness campaign, and members of An Garda Síochána, the Courts Service, Probation Service, Tusla and the HSE will also receive training and education in this area.
The National Women's Council of Ireland (NWCI) said: "We are particularly encouraged by the proposed establishment of monitoring mechanisms which will report to a Cabinet sub-committee. This will give violence against women the political priority that is essential to effectively address the seriousness of the issue."
But more needs to be done. Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald has admitted that "domestic violence is a terrible crime which should have no place in 21st Century Ireland. Regrettably, domestic violence persists and what is more stark is that too many incidents of domestic violence still go unreported. Too many victims are afraid to come forward."
Safe Ireland is calling for the next government to commit, within the first 100 days of office, to implement three crucial actions: Allocate an additional €30m to address gaps in the struggling services, from gardaí to safe housing; appoint a minister and department to spearhead a response to the complex area of domestic violence from health to justice; and, finally, enact new legislation on domestic violence and victims' rights.
Are these requests likely to be met by the next government? Where do the different parties stand on domestic violence and what are they promising us on our doorsteps as they ask for our votes?
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin says that he is fully committed to making sure that everyone experiencing domestic violence gets the support they need.
"Ensuring a safe environment for all women and children must be a political and societal priority. The next government needs to ensure there are adequate resources and legislation is in place as a statement of the seriousness with which we take the matter."
Fine Gael points to the decisive action it has already taken while in government. It also promises to update its domestic violence legislation to ensure that Ireland remains a safe place for women.
Labour launched its plan for community policing and justice reform, which includes bringing garda numbers back to a peak level of 14,500 and legislating to improve protections available for victims of domestic violence.
Sinn Féin says that gender equality must mean taking seriously the issues of domestic and gender-based violence by resourcing services appropriately. It promises to end Direct Provision and build 100,000 new social and affordable homes over the next 15 years, and provide suitable culturally appropriate Traveller accommodation so that no women is forced to live in unsuitable locations at risk of eviction.
Whatever the promises, the truth will out after the election. We can only hope that the next government will follow through and prioritise tackling domestic violence and invest in its eradication.
We need strong leadership to tackle violence against women and make this country a safer place for women and girls.