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Leeson Street, Dublin, on 5 October, 2017
Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to thank you for your kind invitation to launch your Annual Report for 2016.
Being here gives me the opportunity to acknowledge the invaluable work this organisation does and pay tribute to its staff and volunteers.
For nearly forty years the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre has been a vital resource for women and men who have suffered sexual violence. This organisation has been on the frontline, doing what the whole of Irish society needs to be doing - listening, believing and supporting people who have experienced sexual violence.
It is true that the Ireland of today is a different country from the Ireland of the 1970s when your helpline was established. We are a more open society, we are more willing to confront issues previously brushed under the carpet, and we are more willing to listen to often unpalatable truths about our society. These changes are in no small way thanks to the work of organisations like the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre.
The work that you do in this centre on a daily basis is inspiring. You provide the listening ear, the belief, and the expert advice that is so vital to those people affected by sexual violence. Your experience and expertise can help victims of sexual violence take those first crucial steps to healing and recovery. In turn, that support can lead them to taking the steps to hold perpetrators to account by reporting abuse to An Garda Síochána.
Rape and sexual assault are evil. They continue to plague our society. The impact they have on people and those close to them can be devastating.
Although society has become more open and accepting, sexual violence remains far too hidden and underreported, and any figure we put forward will underestimate its prevalence. We must never forget that behind each stark statistic there is a real person, their family and their friends. It is vital that we listen, we believe, and we support.
The report summarises your service’s work during 2016. It highlights the extent of this violence, the demographics of the clients availing of your service and the kinds of awful experiences they have had to endure.
The figures reported in the Annual Report for 2016 are indeed stark - over 12,000 contacts to your helpline, 3579 calls were received relating to adult rape, you attended the Sexual Assault Treatment Unit with 246 victims. These figures serve as an important reminder that despite improvements in how society responds to sexual violence, the services that organisations like DRCC provide are needed as much as ever and that there is much more to be done.
Everyone in this room shares two common goals – we want to support victims of sexual violence, and we want to the greatest extent possible to prevent and eliminate sexual violence. As Minister for Justice and Equality, I am committed to doing all that I can to achieve those goals.
The issue of sexual violence is one that the Government is very concerned about and, as Minister, I take my responsibilities in this area very seriously. I am therefore doing what I can to put in place mechanisms and actions to support victims and to bring perpetrators to account. There is much work underway.
The Programme for Partnership Government commits to the full implementation of the Second National Strategy on Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence and to ratification of the Istanbul Convention; and I am committed to ensuring these two things happen.
The Istanbul Convention is a significant legal instrument for preventing and combating violence against women, including sexual violence. Work is well underway in implementing the remaining actions required to enable Ireland to ratify the Convention. The Domestic Violence Bill and the Victims of Crime Bill are progressing well in the Oireachtas. The enactment of these bills will significantly advance the ratification process. The intention is that Ireland will be in a position to ratify the Istanbul Convention in 2018.
The actions required for ratification are included in the Second National Strategy which, as you know, was launched by my predecessor early last year. Implementation and monitoring of this whole of Government strategy is progressing; and all relevant Government agencies are committed to delivering those measures structured around prevention – including awareness raising and education; and most importantly - to providing services to victims and holding perpetrators to account.
In relation to the national strategy, I would like to thank DRCC for their ongoing input and say thank you to Noeline Blackwell for her continued commitment as a member of the strategy’s Monitoring Committee. Your expert contributions to the committee are valued. It is my view that the community and voluntary sector, in collaboration with the State agencies, has a crucial role in helping deliver a successful strategy.
I mentioned the Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) Bill. This important legislation is progressing well and will hopefully be enacted before the year end. When enacted, the legislation will give all victims of crime an entitlement to information about the system and their case; and supports and special measures during investigation and court proceedings if necessary. This is very important for victims of sexual violence, given the trauma that they suffer, and the added distress that proceeding with a complaint through the criminal justice system can cause.
Another significant development in the fight against sexual violence was the enactment, in February, of the Criminal Justice (Sexual Offences) Act 2017. This essential legislation enhances protections to some of the most vulnerable people in our community. It criminalises harm perpetrated against children, particularly through technology. Importantly, this Act introduces a statutory definition of ‘consent’ to a sexual act, which provides legal clarity and is something I know this organisation had long called for.
Also on the legislative front, my Department is working on drafting a General Scheme of a Bill to create offences in line with the Law Reform Commission’s report on harmful communications and digital safety. Technology is a wonderful thing, but we must do our utmost to prevent it being used as a tool for sexual violence.
We can all agree that it is important to highlight sexual violence in wider society. It is only through education and raising awareness of this issue that we can change society’s attitudes and responses. It is vital that society understands and accepts that sexual activity without consent is wrong, is unacceptable and is a crime.
No matter what the circumstances - sexual violence is never a victims fault. There is no grey area and any suggestion otherwise is wrong and risks damaging the great work that organisations like DRCC does to encourage victims to come forward and speak out, and report assaults to An Garda Síochána so that perpetrators can be held to account.
As you are all aware, Cosc, in my own Department is leading the ongoing national awareness campaign which is currently focused on domestic violence. It is intended that the campaign’s focus will shift in the course of 2019 to addressing sexual violence. Indeed, this month’s theme of the campaign is “Sexual Violence in Intimate Relationships” where this important issue will be highlighted nationwide across regional and local radio stations.
I’m pleased that through our Victims of Crime Office, my Department has been able to assist the important work that the DRCC does with funding for support workers to accompany and support clients attending the Sexual Assault Treatment Unit in the Rotunda Hospital, as well as Garda stations and court hearings.
It is not acceptable to me that anyone is subjected to sexual abuse. I am aware of the devastation that can be inflicted on people and how it can stay with them for years. I am aware that despite the achievements we have made, there is still much work to do.
I am pleased to be here today to engage with you as Minister for Justice and Equality.
The Dublin Rape Crisis Centre is a very important organisation. You provide a hugely valuable source of support to people in the most traumatic of circumstances. You have supported thousands of people and helped heal the hurt of rape and sexual abuse. I would like to thank Ann-Marie Gill and Noeline Blackwell and all the staff of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre for the dedication you show to your clients. You play a vital role in keeping this critical issue firmly on the agenda and I also thank you for that. As we launch this Annual Report for 2016, let me say well done.