A damning indictment of Ireland’s attitude to women

Today’s survey in the Irish Examiner shines a spotlight on the alarming lack of public awareness of a woman’s right not to have sex. That 41% believe that a woman is partially or totally responsible for being raped is she is drunk or takes illegal drugs, that 37% believe she bears some responsibility if she flirts extensively with a man, and  

26% if she wears sexy/revealing clothing, is a wake-up call to Irish society and the Irish Government. 

Rape is a serious violation of a woman’s human rights. Government has a duty under international human rights law to take sufficient preventive measures, and to ensure effective investigation, prosecution and punishment in every case. Successive governments have failed to live up to this duty.  

In a 2003 study by Rape Crisis Network Europe, Ireland had the lowest rate of conviction for rape (1%) among 21 European states. The UN Committee on the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women has expressed concern about the prevalence of violence against women and girls in Ireland, low prosecution and conviction rates, and inadequate funding for organisations that provide support services to victims.  

It is clear from this survey that public attitudes to victims of rape are a significant part of the problem, and something the UN too said needed to be addressed. Rape, as with other forms of “gender-based violence” against women, is directed at a woman because she is a woman. The underlying cause, according to the UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, is the historical and ongoing discrimination against women by men. Also, these attitudes necessarily dictate how victims are treated subsequently. 

The “blame culture” revealed in thus survey also leads in part to low reporting by victims - just over 14% of those who used Rape Crisis Centre services in 2006 reported their experience to the Gardaí – and high withdrawal of complaints. While there are many reasons - long delays in cases coming to court, lack of support services, other rape victims’ experiences in the criminal process, perception of lenient sentences - fear of blame and stigma is amongst them. 

The “blame culture” may also affect the very criminal trial. In its Agenda for Justice report, Rape Crisis Network Ireland points out the dangers of the subjective test applied to a defendant’s being “reckless” as to consent as provided in the Criminal Law (Rape) Act 1981. A defendant can assert an “honest but mistaken belief” that the victim consented, which is decided by the jury on the basis of whether the defendant believed the complainant has consented, no matter how unreasonable that belief.  

Where such a defence is raised, the defendant is more likely to be granted leave to produce evidence of, and cross-examine the complainant on, the complainant’s sexual history. (The Examiner survey found that 29% of the public believe the woman partially or totally responsible if she has had many different sexual partners.) 

It would be naïve to think that the tendency to disbelieve women who allege rape or to attribute the blame to the victims does not influence decisions. It is not just males who hold these beliefs, as no differences in gender were evident in the poll results.

 This survey reinforces the call for this test to require an objective assessment of the reasonableness of the defendant’s belief in consent, as in England and Wales.   

This survey presents an important opportunity to reflect on what needs to be done. With sufficient political will, violence against women can be challenged and addressed. Government must undertake a programme of public awareness – not just posters and TV advertisements – to address attitudes that serve to undermine women’s right to be free from violence and discrimination.  

This must start early. While those polled in the Examiner survey were over 18, Women's Aid’s Teenage Tolerance research revealed disturbing confusion amongst young people about the meaning of rape and consent  -19% of young women and 34% of young men did not think being forced to have sex is rape - raising serious concerns for their ability to identify their own experience, or that of their peers, as a crime. The views of young people are formed early. Human rights education, encompassing women’s rights, should be a formal part of the curriculum for all children. 

What we also need from Government is:

  • Reform of the justice system to ensure that it adequately punishes violence against women, and is sensitive and responsive to the needs of victims
  • A statutory definition of consent, and a subjective test for recklessness as to consent
  • Specialised training for the Gardai, judiciary and other key personnel
  • Increased and more transparent funding for voluntary services - Rape Crisis Centres, one service in which victims do have trust, are crippled by resource constraints so that victims of rape can have to wait months for counselling.  

But we, Irish society, must play our part. Violence against women is not a private matter – it is everyone’s business. We too must challenge negative attitudes to women, and resist images and information channels that reinforce discriminatory attitudes and perpetuate violence against women. 

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