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We must do better for female victims of violence and sexual assault – Carroll MacNeill

21st March 2021 - Jennifer Carroll MacNeill, TD

We must do better in our treatment of female victims of violence and sexual assault, according to Fine Gael TD Jennifer Carroll MacNeill, who also called for a renewed effort to make our streets and public spaces safer for women and vulnerable people.

Deputy Carroll MacNeill said: “Improving the way we treat female victims of violence and sexual assault will both humanise the justice process for them, and also remove barriers to other victims coming forward and reporting incidents.

“I look forward to working on this important matter this week (Tuesday) when the Oireachtas Justice Committee meets with the Rape Crisis Network, One in Four, Men’s Aid, The Bar of Ireland, and officials from the Department of Justice.

“Speaking about their experiences, many victims have rightly hailed the sensitivity and compassion of the Gardaí dealing with their cases, however this is not the case across the criminal justice system.  Sadly it is failing these women in the way it treats victims of violence and sexual assault. In the court system, victims of rape and sexual assault are treated as witnesses  and as such they do not have representation except when there is a request to cross examine the victim on their past sexual history and when records are being requested. The recent O’Malley report on how victims of rape and sexual assault should be treated in the court process made many excellent recommendations however it stopped short of recommending what advocates for victims of rape and sexual assault have been calling for for far too long, and that is for separate representation for victims in these cases. It has been described by too many as far too difficult a process.

“I applaud the bravery of solicitor Sarah Grace, who spoke on RTÉ radio recently about her experiences of the justice system. She raised very valid questions about the use of counselling notes in rape and sexual assault court cases. This is extremely problematic. Any woman who has been the victim of sexual assault or rape needs the full benefit of such counselling, without the fear that the counselling notes could be used against her in court.

“We now have the opportunity to make positive changes for the future treatment of female victims of violence and sexual assault. I look forward to exploring some of the suggestions that will be made in the upcoming report on the Department of Justice audit of how responsibility for domestic, sexual and gender-based violence is segmented across government agencies and the NGO service providers. It will also recommend proposals on what infrastructure is needed to ensure that the issues are dealt with in the most effective manner possible.”

Deputy Carroll MacNeill continued: “While the treatment of victims is so important, we must also continue to focus on the prevention of these crimes to ensure we have fewer such victims. We need a renewed effort to make our streets and public spaces safer for women. We may never completely eradicate violence from our society, but education is a major key to changing societal attitudes towards girls and women who have been disproportionately affected, for generations.

“This education must be age appropriate and start at pre-school and continue right through to third level. Understanding of issues like equality, personhood, boundaries, consent and respect are crucial to effecting attitudinal change.

“As we have seen from the avalanche of stories in recent weeks, too many women do not feel safe on our streets and public transport, both during the day and especially after dark. Only when you’ve been in the situation of a routine walk home turning into a moment of terror, can you truly understand what it feels like. That’s why it has been so important for women to speak out in the way they have done.

“Legislators must listen; and we must also act. I’ve no doubt that what we hear at the Justice Committee Tuesday will be shocking, but also nothing new. It has been said that the scenes of recent weeks are a reminder of the 1979 ‘Reclaim the Night’ marches. It is unacceptable that we have not made more progress forty years on. We cannot continue to simply be outraged; what is the point in that?

“It is time we made tangible changes to improve the experience of victims of violence and sexual assault, but also crucially, to ensure we see less of these crimes in our communities in the first instance. Let us make sure that the recommendations that will come from the audit will be taken seriously and driven by Government to ensure that the proper funding is made available to deliver what we know works; prevention programmes, proper provision of services and continued developments in our criminal justice system for protection and prosecution.”

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