I am delighted to represent Women's Aid today. Women's Aid is a national feminist organisation that has been working to prevent and address the impact of domestic violence and abuse in Ireland since 1974. We do this by advocating, influencing, training and campaigning for effective responses to reduce the scale and impact of domestic abuse on women and children in Ireland, and also by providing high-quality, specialised, integrated support services. Women's Aid commends the establishment of the gender equality committee to consider the important recommendations of the Citizens' Assembly, particularly those on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, and to put forward proposals for implementation.
The link between gender-based violence and gender inequality has been clearly established, although I fully accept and endorse what my colleague from Rape Crisis Network Ireland said with respect to the need to be vigilant in this regard. The UN states violence against women is both a cause and a consequence of gender inequality and discrimination. It is clear to Women's Aid that for women and girls to enjoy equal opportunities and full participation at all levels of society, they must first be able to live violence-free lives.
Gender-based violence takes many forms, including domestic abuse, sexual violence, stalking and harassment, female genital mutilation, trafficking, prostitution, so-called honour crimes, child marriage, forced marriage, and violence in conflict. Given our remit, I will focus on intimate partner violence today and, in particular, recommendations 38, 39 and 40. However, I fully endorse the statements just made by my colleagues in Dublin Rape Crisis Centre and Rape Crisis Network Ireland.
With respect to recommendation 38, Women's Aid appreciates that the draft third national strategy on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence includes important actions on healthy relationships and education at all formal educational levels, as suggested in recommendation 27 of the Citizens' Assembly, as well as actions on delivering awareness-raising and prevention campaigns on gender-based violence for the general public. We believe that, as per recommendation 38, specific prevention campaigns
targeting young people should also be carried out. These should be based on research and collaboration with young people to make them relevant to them and hopefully more effective than general campaigns.
Any awareness, prevention and education campaigns mentioned in this recommendation should include a specific focus on young people's dating relationships and be informed by the social context of gender inequalities and negative gendered stereotypes, which have to be redressed to effectively combat the gendered nature of much dating abuse itself. The careful crafting of campaigns to prevent gender-based violence in young people's relationships will also contribute to accelerated gender equality among younger generations.
Intimate partner violence is often publicly framed as an issue for established married or cohabiting couples, or as an issue that does not really impact very much on young people and their dating or intimate relationships. However, a recent WHO global prevalence review has found that intimate partner violence starts early, with 24% of women aged between 15 and 19 years having already experienced physical or sexual violence, or both, by an intimate partner. Women's Aid has been active on this issue for several years.
Too Into You is a national public awareness campaign aimed, since 2011, at raising awareness of intimate relationship abuse against young women aged between 18 and 25. As part of this work, we have commissioned two national research studies with young people over the last two years. What we have found in this research is extremely troubling. One in five young women, compared with one in 11 young men, has suffered intimate relationship abuse by a male partner. Of the young women who had suffered abuse, 50% had been targeted through online abuse, 75% had been subjected to sexual coercion by a male partner, and one in three had never spoken to anyone about the abuse suffered. A particular concern is that 50% of the young women affected were abused by a male partner or ex-partner when under the age of 18.
Unfortunately, very little has been done in Ireland to date to understand and address dating violence in this young age cohort.
In our 2021 research report, we identified the need for more work to be done with young people on their awareness and understanding of intimate relationship abuse, as well as on how to be an ally and support to peers.
We need to raise awareness and challenge and disrupt abusive behaviour early before it becomes acceptable and normalised for both victims and perpetrators alike in relationships.
We must support young people's desire to support their friends who experience abuse and give them the knowledge and confidence to do so safely and effectively. We have to support all young people, particularly young men, with knowledge and tools to foster healthy egalitarian behaviours in friendships and intimate relationships, and enhance their abilities to initiate positive, respectful relationships with healthy mutual intimacy.
Women's Aid strongly agrees with recommendation 39, on supporting justice for victims and survivors, and all the five actions outlined. In our experience, access to justice for victims of domestic abuse, including coercive control, continues to be problematic, both in the family courts and criminal courts. Article 31 of the Istanbul Convention requires that domestic abuse be taken into account when determining custody and access, and that these arrangements be safe for children and the non-abusive parent. Unfortunately, this is not always the case in Ireland.
The Government is currently doing important work on family law, including establishing a dedicated family law court, developing the family courts Bill and developing a family justice strategy. Women's Aid believes that in order to be successful, any reform of the family courts must be designed with the safety of victims of domestic violence, including children, at its heart, with the latter actively consulted. We need adequate training for all stakeholders in the family courts, including expert reporters themselves, on the reality and impacts of coercive control, greater regulation, accessibility and transparency of child welfare reports.
There is a concerning disconnect between the family and criminal courts: in cases of domestic violence and child abuse, these courts may deal with the same families but do not work together to protect women and children from an abusive partner or father. There is an urgent need to improve co-ordination and linkages between family courts, criminal courts and child protection, ensuring the voice of the child is heard, improving eligibility for legal aid, and developing models for screening, fast-tracking and risk-assessing domestic abuse and child abuse cases.
There can be an assumption in the family courts that abuse ends with separation, but in many cases the reverse is true. Abuse can continue and even escalate after separation, which is a particularly hazardous time for women and children in the context of domestic abuse and coercive control. We hear of cases in which a history of domestic abuse, including convictions for criminal offences against the mother, is minimised, ignored or dismissed in custody and access proceedings as a separate matter.
In the criminal justice system, unfortunately we also know that this often fails survivors of domestic abuse. Our research in 2019 found that for the majority of women surveyed, the criminal justice system did not provide adequate justice or increase their feelings of safety. Sadly, most of the women interviewed said they would not, or were unsure if they would, go through the process again, including in cases where a conviction was obtained against their partner. There is a need to redesign the court process, without prejudicing the rights of the accused to a fair hearing, to minimise delays and adjournments and put at its centre the victim's safety and recovery.
A review of how the criminal justice system responds to victims of domestic abuse is long overdue. It should account for the need for improved data systems that could give visibility on sentencing levels where the perpetrator is a current or former partner. The work by the Department of Justice in Supporting a Victim's Journey presents a very promising model for victim-centred reform that will also benefit victims of domestic violence and abuse who have suffered sexual abuse by a partner. It must ensure the specific dynamics and broader relationships and stakes that may be in play where the perpetrator is a current or former partner of the victim are accounted for in all criminal cases.
Women’s Aid also supports the establishment of a victims' or survivors' commissioner as an independent advocate and voice for victims and survivors.
On recommendation 40, Women’s Aid welcomes this recommendation, and we are pleased to note that it has been included in the third national strategy on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, DSGBV, with commitments to develop strategic accommodation solutions in conjunction with the recommendations from the Tusla review of emergency accommodation. Additional to overall bed spaces, however, one of the reasons refuges are full, is because there is not enough movement on accommodation. There are challenges with accessing local authority housing and a housing crisis that makes finding a home in the Irish market extremely difficult. We need to do more than build refuges and give victims of domestic violence and abuse the option of remaining safely in their own homes with specialist support. We need to make clear the link between domestic violence and homelessness and to include a medium- and long-term accommodation action specifically for victims of domestic violence and abuse in the national Housing for All strategy.
I will finish by touching very briefly on recommendation 24 which, while not being in the gender-based violence strategy category, is extremely relevant. Domestic abuse and stalking are not confined to the real world but increasingly also happen in the virtual world. Women and girls disproportionately experience severe kinds of cyber-harassment, including cyber-stalking, online sexual harassment and image-based sexual abuse. While image-based sexual abuse has been made illegal in the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Act there is still no efficient way to have image-based sexual abuse content removed from the Internet quickly. It is essential that this content is removed quickly before it can go viral and therefore this removal has to happen independently of any criminal proceedings. Women’s Aid has been calling for swift take-down orders, particularly for image-based sexual abuse, as opposed to the protracted mechanisms that are currently proposed to be included in the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill. We believe this is necessary as a tool to combat the devastating consequences of this form of gender-based violence.