Monday 23 September 2019

Comment: 'We are failing women with culture of victim blame'

Rape Crisis Centre chief executive Noeline Blackwell. Picture: Tony Gavin
Rape Crisis Centre chief executive Noeline Blackwell. Picture: Tony Gavin


When it comes to sexual violence in our country, too much of the screaming is still done silently. The reasons for concealment are many: pain, shame, fear, invasion, violation - all are contributory factors.

Rape Crisis Ireland tells us women are understandably reticent about coming forward.

This is especially disturbing given the number of rapes reported to gardaí jumped by 28pc last year.

According to 2017 crime data, there were 655 instances of rape recorded by gardaí.

The true figure is likely to be considerably higher. But the bruising investigative and legal gamut victims must run is often too punishing for them to face.

If many were surprised when, in a closing address, a senior counsel told a jury they should have regard for the fact that a teenage girl was wearing a thong with a lace front in a recent case in Cork, Noeline Blackwell, the head of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, was not.

"When someone goes into court as a complainant... they are likely to be asked that and are likely to worry about it," she said.

Nothing should be allowed to distract from the law that clearly states sex without consent is a crime.

There is a responsibility to vindicate the rights of both complainant and accused in any case. It scarcely needs repeating that any insidious notion that what constitutes rape be set not at the level of women's experience of violation, but at a level of coercion acceptable to men has to be banished for good.

Yet wildly inappropriate attitudes and dangerous patterns of behaviour persist.

They can not be tolerated and must be eradicated. This is a matter that has to be confronted and examined in every facet of life and not just left to the law. Yet rape trials are unlike any other, traumas can so easily be re-triggered, and injuries revisited.

Just because people do not realise the damage they are doing by placing the blame on a victim does not lessen the harm.

The last major study of sexual violence here goes as far back as 2002.

It revealed 42pc of women had experienced some form of sexual abuse. Yet only 10pc of sexual offences were reported.

In 2009, the last year for which we have court figures, the conviction rate in rape cases in the Republic was only 8pc.

Gardaí too have admitted they have sometimes advised victims the chances of getting a conviction may not be worth taking, given the ordeal they will inevitably be put through in a rape trial.

Every case is different, yet our judicial system must be vigilant in eradicating any incipient culture of victim blaming. If a complainant in a rape trial is left with a crushing sense they are the one on trial, then we are failing badly; if women are afraid to even come forward, we are failing completely.

Irish Independent

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