WATCH: Reform of Education on Sexual Consent Needed.


Full transcript:

The numbers outlined in this survey have been spoken about a lot so I will not necessarily start quoting the figures again. We are better served by focusing on the grim reality of the picture they paint. As a previous speaker said, these figures are shocking but not surprising. It is important to remember that behind each one of these numbers and statistics are survivors, victims and individuals who have been on the receiving end of sexual violence, domestic violence and, as Deputy Bacik has just said, an abuse of their human rights. We need to recognise that. I will also underline the fact that behind the victims are children. Behind the women are families and we need to remember them. I implore the Minister for Justice to remember that, while the divisional protective services within An Garda Síochána are doing an excellent job, they could be much improved by the secondment of duty social workers from Tusla into them. I recently said the exact same thing in a Topical Issue debate. I have said it to the Minister, Deputy O’Gorman, and I will say it to Minister for Justice. Both agencies, An Garda Síochána and Tusla, can very easily improve their practice in the areas of families and domestic violence simply by working more closely together to ensure that victims do not fall through any safety nets that are there.

We need to talk about these safety nets and about some of the social structures and agency structures we have and ensure they are working effectively. Quite frankly, the numbers suggest they are not. Rape Crisis Network Ireland estimates that only 14% of sexual assault cases are reported to An Garda. After being reported, many of these cases may never make it to court. They may fall away or get reclassified. That system simply is not working. Why is it that people do not have the trust in the system to be able to report cases? What is their fear about our criminal justice system and how they are getting to be treated within it that blocks them from coming forward? We need to look at the role of the courts in this regard.

I look to two reports from the Joint Committee on Justice. In one, we look at the treatment of vulnerable witnesses in the criminal justice system while the other is our pre-legislative scrutiny report on the forthcoming criminal justice amendment Bill that will strengthen criminal definitions around rape. In both of these reports, we have made recommendations regarding the need to protect witnesses in order that people not only feel safe to report, but to follow that journey through. It is only if they are able and facilitated to follow the criminal justice journey to the end safely that we will see perpetrators punished and it is only if perpetrators are punished that we will see meaningful consequences that will begin to feed into prevention. We need to look at all of these things.

I will again point to things like the family courts. We have been promised developments on the Family Courts Bill 2022 but it seems to be making very slow progress. In Dublin, the special family courts building on Hammond Lane remains a rather large hole in the ground. I would not even call it a building site. It is nowhere near being a building site. There is a lot of work to be done to get it to the point of being a building site. It has been sitting there for a very long time. These are structural things that we need to develop and push on. Others are civil legal aid and the provision of more judges. We are seeing progress on these matters but it is not nearly quick enough. Again, we need to get this out there. We need to ensure that our criminal justice system is not a barrier to survivors coming forward or to perpetrators receiving consequences and that it therefore actively contributes to the prevention of sexual violence. As I have said, I do not believe we are quite there.

I will now turn to the role of education in the prevention of sexual violence. We have to start in our school system. I have heard other speakers talk about reforms to the social, personal and health education, SPHE, curriculum. I would really welcome such reforms. Conversations about consent at an earlier age and informing and developing minds are really important in this area. However, it cannot be the case that we do something in the classroom and then ignore issues in the corridor. Surveys in the past have shown frightening levels of sexual violence in schools and young girls being on the receiving end of sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools. That is not good enough. There is no point in improving our SPHE curriculum if we do not tell schools that they need to improve what is happening in the corridor. A lot of work is being done at third level with regard to sexual harassment and sexual violence policies. These can easily be replicated at second level. The Department has a role in leading the way on and demanding this. We demand anti-bullying policies and child protection statements of schools. We should demand that they actively address the sexual harassment and sexual violence happening in their corridors, to which there seems to be no response right now.

There has been a rise in smartphones, which produces new forms of sexual violence and new risks. While we teach one thing in SPHE, young people learn something entirely different from social media or the Internet. Part of it is about having the education to withstand the pressures and understand, as well as improving our SPHE along with that. It is not one or the other; it is both.

A figure in the survey was that 78% of those who experienced sexual violence knew their perpetrator. There are people right now trying to use the issue of sexual assault to target migrants and refugees in vulnerable communities. The CSO figures show that these false claims are just that, false. I reiterate that 78% of people knew the perpetrator personally. This is simply not a result of immigration. We must push back against those false narratives and dangerous lies. If somebody knows the perpetrator and they are known to them so well, why is there no justice? Why are there no consequences for their actions? This brings me back to where I began, when I spoke about the structural issues that block victims. If a person picks up the phone and calls 999 looking for help, will that call be answered? Will she get help? Our laws around domestic violence are not strong enough. There are many ways in which they can be improved. Beyond that, there are also many structural things that get in the way in the courts system. I hope that in a few years’ time we will not be back here having a similar debate with similar numbers. I urge the Government and Ministers to address the structural barriers, which are under their control, and which stop victims getting the justice they need.