RCNI host webinar on Surviving Sexual Violence in War

On Tuesday 7 June, Croatian-based organisation The Women’s Room (Ženska Soba), in collaboration with Rape Crisis Network Ireland, delivered a webinar on ‘Sexual Violence in War’. The Women’s Room is a Croatian feminist, non-profit, civil society organisation established in 2002. It provides direct services to victims of sexual violence including survivors of sexual violence as weapon of war. It aims for the prevention and combating of all sexual violence as well as promotion and protection of sexual rights.

The event was led by Maja Mamula and Marijana Senjak, both of whom are highly experienced in working with survivors of  sexual violence in war, and was of interest to those who work in frontline services with survivors, particularly counsellors and psychotherapists. The webinar covered topics such as:  

  • Myths and facts about sexual violence in war 
  • Women’s bodies as a battlefield 
  • Phenomenological aspects of war rape. Presentation available for download here
  • Surviving sexual violence in war. Presentation available for download here


Excerpt from Al-Jazeera news programme Everywoman featuring a piece on Marijana Senjak by Fiona Lloyd-Davies of Studio 9 Films.

Common language is the keystone 

 Children experience sexual violence in ways that are often difficult for us to see and they speak about the harm done to them in ways that may not resonate with us.  When a child discloses their experience of sexual violence they may do so in small parts or in one disclosure, with words or with behaviour, to one adult or to many. Our task as adults, professionals and agencies is to ensure that the piece they tell us counts towards the whole story. To do that we have to speak a common language. 

Our collective understanding of a child’s journey currently can fall between the cracks as parents, schools, GPs, clubs and other services working with children, the family or the community are engaged for a range of reasons and not primarily focused on or specializing in sexual violence. All of these services do their best to understand, to support and to protect the child but between all these people it is not surprising that the child’s voice may falter and their story become fragmented and unheard.   

All of these adults are essential in protecting the child, but they each serve the child’s best interests in different ways and therefore their focus is unique to that service. But if a child’s experience is revealed in fragments, then we need to ensure that we can put those fragments together to understand the full picture. We do that by putting in place common language to underpin robust and comparable data collection so that our overlapping knowledge can form a whole, locally, nationally and internationally and we can meet our legal and ethical obligations. 

Currently the many points of contact a child may have, where valuable parts of their experience are told, are using various terminology and collecting different data. For example, of the services meeting the needs of child victims of sexual violence, 12 of our 16 databases do not record sexual harassment of a child and 5 out of the 16 do not use the rape of a child. This does not serve the best interests of the child. RCNI, with funding from the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, invited all these NGO and statutory stakeholders to come together to share our current data collection points and agree the basic building blocks of how we record what we know from the children we encounter.  

Ireland is a signatory of the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (Istanbul Convention). The Istanbul Convention recognises the need for data collection to be fit to contribute – not just to national – but regional and international monitoring. All signatories are legally obliged to report specific information about sexual violence; Ireland does not do this, a fact that GREVIO, the Council of Europe monitoring body who will be shortly be evaluating our performance on implementing the Istanbul Convention is sure to take note of.   

There are positive indications that comprehensive, reliable and comparable is increasingly recognised as an essential driver of policy development and a vital element in improving interagency pathways.  The Minister for Justice recently presented its Third National Strategy on DSGBV for public consultation recommending ‘developing enhanced coordination of data collection strategies’.   

In Ireland our leaders, policy-makers and the general public are asking what we can do to cherish and protect those who have experienced Domestic, Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (DSGBV).   An important part of the answer is that we need to collect better data that gives the survivor a voice – a safe and anonymised voice amongst the thousands of survivors, in whose combined stories we can find patterns that can inform policy and cultural change. It should be noted that the first step in collecting such data is that it does no harm, this means that the child’s interests and privacy is steadfastly protected so that they can access services freely and without fear.  

Last month RCNI launched Breaking the Silence: Terminology Guidelines for Data Collection on Sexual Violence Against Children, the culmination of a collaboration with 28 organisations working with children who were subjected to sexual violence. Most collect data already. The finished report includes shared terms and definitions for collecting information on sexual violence against children in Ireland which comply with Ireland’s international legal obligations.  

So much of a child’s experience of sexual violence is mediated and navigated through the adults around them. It is important that all services and professionals meeting a child’s needs are able to join up their knowledge with others’, especially when our children cannot and it is paramount that the voice of these survivors informs and is reflected in policy. To do this we must develop a common language. 


‘Breaking the Silence’ is free to download here.


Reflections on 2021

As we see out 2021, I want to thank everyone who has made the journey with us. It has been another busy, affirming and in places tumultuous year. It is a year marked by contrasts; the uncertainty of Covid alongside the solidifying of partnerships and relationships; the inertia surrounding our lives due to the pandemic against the unprecedented change agenda in reforming how we support the victim’s journey through the criminal justice system; the passivity of being subject to a virus against the big and ambitious plans being formulated for the future; the frailty and the resilience of our sector and all who work and volunteer within it, the victims surviving.

None of our work is possible without the engagement and support of survivors, the member Rape Crisis Centres, other NGOs partners and collaborators, our board and funders – thank you to all of you.

The year started with the consultation into the Government Audit into the infrastructure and response across the whole of government to Domestice, Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (DSGBV). The third national strategy consultation commenced shortly into 2021 and the O’Malley review implementation plan led by the Department of Justice – ‘Supporting a Victims Journey’ – was very active with three subcommittees and a raft of projects focused on implementation.

Along with engaging in these three big pieces of government led transformative work the RCNI worked with a range of partners throughout 2021 to create the conditions for change. RCNI chaired the Children Living with Domestic and Sexual Violence NGO coalition working to map the child victim’s journey and advocate on their behalf. We initiated the What Works project with sexual violence NGOs and statutory partners to identify shared data points to understand and track sexual violence against children. We continued our collaboration with counselling partners in the Sector Bodies group to advocate for adult survivor rights in the processing of mandatory reporting, chaired by our colleague Maeve Lewis in One in Four. We were part of the Children Rights Alliance led joint campaign to ensure the best outcomes for the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill and continued to work with our partners in the Victims Rights Alliance.

Other critical legislative change this year also included the Criminal Procedures Act, the Sex Offenders Bill and the Equalities Act review. We also engaged in a large-scale research project with survivors and counsellors on their experiences and needs in relation to remote and blended counselling. Trauma informed training across the professions of engaged in delivering justice has also been a significant feature of the past year. Our longstanding commitment to education and prevention remained through work across the schools curriculum, the Higher Education Institutes, HSE sexual health work and the Department of Justice-led national DSGBV campaigns.

We have remained committed in 2021 to supporting our partners across Europe. Ireland is one of the few countries in the EU that has long-standing and standalone specialisation in sexual violence responses and so under the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention which most countries are now implementing our insights are in demand. As board member of the European Women’s Network against Sexual Violence, I was contracted as a specialist consultant to a UNWomen project in the Western Balkans and Turkey. This work included a study day and we are grateful for the participation of our statutory and SATU partners in sharing Ireland’s 360 experience of responding to sexual violence as part of this project. The project culminated in a guidance document on the ‘how to’ of sexual violence response and we participated in dissemination, promotion and training to rape crisis start-ups in other countries. We continue to act as expert advisors to the European Network WAVE as it builds its language around sexual violence specialisation and continue to engage in the learning and collaborative network with our partners across the UK and Ireland.

The core of our work remains the everyday work with survivors both within the RCNI team and through the rape crisis centres who own and govern the RCNI. Significantly increased networking has been an ongoing part of our Covid response, with shared learning, mutual support, policy and guidance development, upskilling and data gathering featuring throughout.

The Storm and Stress research from our colleague Michelle Walsh launched in June made a big impact as this research filled a critical gap in our evidence around adolescent’s experiences of sexual harassment and violence. The need for this evidence is clear in how frequently these statistics have been quoted since we published them, including by the Ombudsman for Children, the Rapporteur and a judge in a sentencing in a sexual violence case.

2022 promises to be a busy year again for us with large projects from this year continuing into 2022 and their outputs being launched and finalised. This includes the research from the Clinical Innovation Project, funded by Rethink Ireland, which saw 1000 survivors and 500 counsellors participating in our research. RCNI will continue collaborating in the development of a suite of training materials arising from this learning. Alongside this, we will be making the time for the all-important ‘housekeeping’ work of a renewal of our strategic direction, governance, website and data collection infrastructure as well as imagining ourselves into the opportunities and challenges presented by the blended world of on and offline working and living, and the commitment and energy to creating change that exists all round us at present.

Dr Cliona Saidlear
Executive Director, RCNI

Translating ‘Rape Crisis’ across Europe under the Istanbul Convention

The Council of Europe Convention on Action Against Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence, otherwise known as the Istanbul Convention, is an opportunity across Europe and our neighbours to make sure that no matter where a survivor of sexual violence is in Europe they will have support and justice available to them that is appropriate and specialized.  

Istanbul Convention’s Article 25:  

Support for victims of sexual violence  

Parties shall take the necessary legislative or other measures to provide for the setting up of appropriate, easily accessible rape crisis or sexual violence referral centres for victims in sufficient numbers to provide for medical and forensic examination, trauma support and counselling for victims.’ 

One of the challenges in conversations and learning across Europe, as we raise the standards, is our complete lack of a shared starting point and language on what we mean when we say, ‘rape crisis’ and ‘sexual violence referral centre’. In addition, we define sexual violence itself differently in different European countries. What counts as rape in Ireland, where we have defined rape as the absence of consent, would not qualify as such in other countries where only the presence of physical violence makes an act rape. 

While there is a lot to fix in Ireland you might be surprised to know that relative to our neighbours across Europe we have something of a head start in terms of specialist responses for survivors.  

We are working off a 50-year legacy. In the 1970s and 80s, second-wave feminists and other activists established the first six Rape Crisis Centres, the RCNI and CARI. From the mid 1990s, as we lifted the lid on institutional abuse, more rape crisis centres (about half of the rape crisis centres we have today) were opened and also One in Four. Alongside these community-based specialists supports, doctors, nurses and activists built Sexual Assault Treatment Units. All of us today specialise in sexual violence.  This sexual violence specialist infrastructure is unusual in Europe and is a situation only mirrored in the UK.  

Across Northern and Central Western Europe what was built by second-wave feminists were largely Women’s Centres, delivering a range of responses and advocacy, many focused on domestic violence with very few specialising in sexual violence. To the East, where the state provided all responses under Communism, there is little if any tradition of statutory or community sexual violence services and often no specialisation. As they build their brand new infrastructure they are neither helped nor indeed encumbered by an existing  sexual violence service infrastructure. We all have different starting points, with much to learn from each other and a variety of challenges and opportunities. 

To start with we need to understand what different specialisations are needed, where, when and why. A forensic examination facility is not a rape crisis centre and a rape crisis centre is unlikely to offer forensic medical exams – this may seem obvious to us in Ireland but is not at all obvious elsewhere. While the evidence so far broadly supports the Irish model, the experiences of our European partners challenges us to look at our model and ask ourselves why we built it in this particular way and if it is indeed the best fit.  

RCNI has always worked with European partners to ensure specialisation and standards are there to meet survivor-informed needs. We founded the European network of specialist sexual violence services in 2002, chaired the 2012 international Conference of Survivors of Rape, our Executive Director is a governor of the European Women’s Network Against Violence Against Women, adviser to UN Women on their Southern Balkans and Turkey Istanbul Convention project and we are active members of the WAVE European Network’s Sexual Violence working group. Through these collaborations we hope to develop shared language and support shared innovation and best practice to not only better serve survivors here in Ireland but all survivors across Europe. 

Dr Cliona Saidlear is Executive Director of Rape Crisis Network Ireland

‘An overwhelming surge in the demand for our services’

Grace McArdle of Rape Crisis North East writes about how the Covid pandemic changed the ways in which the Centre operated for staff and survivors.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge toll on our organisation and the clients we serve. Trauma whether in the past or more recent cannot be put on hold, even in the face of a national and global crisis. All clients of Rape Crisis North East were reassured that they would continue to receive one to one counselling support during the Covid-19 pandemic. It meant that the services that people needed had to change, with counsellors working remotely using online video platforms and telephone, and providing out of hours support services at times that suited clients. We put in place robust policies and safety practices led by Rape Crisis Network Ireland to ensure a safe work environment for all who enter our centre.

We saw a huge increase in the demand for our services from vulnerable people in need of support. Survivors of sexual violence were more in need of our services in 2020 continuing into 2021 than ever before and it was, and still is of critical importance that RCNE, an essential service, is able to support our clients in these challenging and unprecedented times. Many survivors really struggled during lockdown. Some clients living with a partner and children informed us of difficulty finding the time and/or the space to access supports. For others, lockdown had proven very difficult. Sexual violence was on the increase due to people being stuck at home together. In response to these concerns, RCNE had to adapt our services to the current environment as it was now more important than ever to reach out to those in need. Clients were very grateful and acknowledged their gratitude for this continued support. We would encourage our clients to find a safe quiet place where they can talk in private. For some, their safe place was in their car away from their home, the park or in a friend’s house. Some of the more challenging situations presented in Direct Provision, where people are living in shared accommodation facilities and really struggled to find somewhere away from others to speak in confidence.

RCNE offered our time and flexibility to our clients by whatever means possible. If it wasn’t safe for a client to receive support during the day, we would make ourselves available to clients outside our normal working hours. We would send care packages to those clients in Direct Provision who most needed our help and support, and we also supported many other organisations who were struggling to cope with their huge waiting lists of vulnerable people, especially people in crisis in need of immediate help.

While the true effects of Covid-19 on RCNE and the wider sector will not be known for some time, it is clear that the crisis has already had a large toll on our organisation particularly in terms of crisis fatigue and the significant loss of finances to support our service. We were fortunate to receive Covid-19 financial support from our core funders Tusla and from many local funders: RTE Comic Relief Fund – Community Foundation; American Ireland; PayPal; National Lottery; The Courts; Dundalk Credit Union; Local Councillors; Tesco Community; Rotary Club; The Great Northern Distillery and the generosity of the public through donations. However, we were unable to hold any public fundraising events in 2020 and as a result led to a large deficit going into 2021.

The cancellation of so many fundraising events during 2020 and now 2021 has led to an acute funding shortfall for our Centre. In tandem with this deficit, we have seen an overwhelming surge in the demand for our services. We have particularly seen an increase in young people in need of our counselling support along with an increase in referrals from local services, schools and youth groups. Our confidential Helpline which for many is the first port of call, has been a lifeline for many survivors and supporters of rape and sexual violence across Louth, Meath, Monaghan and Cavan during the darkest and most challenging of times over the past year. Over 3,300 contacts were made, a significant increase from previous years. Our Helpline service is supported by a team of dedicated volunteers and staff, who give their time so generously to ensure the Helpline service is maintained. Our staff and volunteers have worked above and beyond to ensure every single call was answered and supported. We do not receive any statutory funding for this Helpline service and it is totally dependent on donations and fundraising.

Regrettably, Rape Crisis Centre’s employees and their families and friends have been impacted by COVID-19 with a number suffering adverse outcomes, including tragically bereavement. Rape Crisis Network Ireland’s board of Directors offers its deepest sympathy to anyone involved in Rape Crisis Centres and their families who have lost loved ones.

Contact Rape Crisis North East in confidence at Freephone 1800 21 21 22

Read RCNI’s Annual Statistics Report here

‘I deserve the best life possible’

A survivor of sexual violence speaks about her experience of the support offered by Kerry Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre. Kerry RSAC can be contacted at Freephone 1800 633 333 and you can find more information at the centre’s website here

‘I started my journey four years ago with the Kerry Rape & Sexual Abuse Centre. It began with one-to-one counselling and about six months later I began my First Group. After the Group finished, I stayed a few more months on a one-to-one basis and then I left. I was very grateful for their time and understanding, it changed my life, and I can’t thank the Centre enough for that. I was given the opportunity to come for a second Group session. I was very nervous as it was with one new facilitator and a new group of ladies, and I wasn’t sure if I would learn anything new from the first group. How wrong was I, the group has given me a new lease of life.

Nobody can understand how powerful it is to be among other people that understand what you have been through. You do not have to lie, you can speak the truth and know you have been heard. I gave myself goals at the beginning for what I wanted and needed from the group and I feel I am achieving these. The ladies have been amazing especially their experiences and most importantly for me how they deal with families. I have grown in the last twelve weeks and wish it would last forever, but I know I have the tools to continue. Also, when things do get hard and triggers happen, I will be able to go back and remember how the group have given me advice, and also their experiences to deal with anything.

Our childhoods were taken from us and that was not our fault, but we have full control of our future and I will not let him ruin that. It has affected me for over thirty-eight years but not anymore, it will always be there, but I feel with the experiences I have gone through Kerry Rape & Sexual Abuse Centre, it will help me with the rest of my life. Not only am I survivor, but I also deserve the best life possible.’

Thanks to the survivor of sexual violence who contributed to the RCNI Annual Statistics 2020 report. You can read the report here

‘Centring the Survivor’: How Waterford RSAC Adapted To Lockdown

Anne Scully, manager of Waterford Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre, describes how Covid restrictions impacted the work of the centre with both counsellors and survivors forced to adapt quickly to challenging circumstances.

‘When the pandemic swept across the world we had to change how we worked very quickly, and that brought huge challenges, for us and for our clients. Like the other Centres, we switched to remote working in the space of a few days and began offering phone or video calls. Not all clients availed of remote working, some because of lack of privacy or not wanting to bring the therapeutic process into their homes, others because they knew the relationship would be changed by the distance and so wouldn’t work for them.

As therapists, we also had to bring the work into our own homes which proved testing for us – our own families were also at home so trying to find privacy and confidentiality for appointments was an issue. We juggled appointment days and times wherever we could so that clients could stay in contact. We continued to offer legal support and advocacy throughout, though our volunteer support workers were unable to attend at SATU so again, phone contact was offered to survivors.

Like our clients, we were sometimes competing for broadband/wifi with various family members and also trying to juggle childcare, parentcare, homeschooling, working from home, etc. All of us who work in the Centre found the lack of day-to-day contact with the rest of the team, which has always been a huge source of support for us, to be a huge loss. We replaced that with online team meetings, peer support groups, weekly check-in calls with myself as Manager and online supervision.

As various levels of restrictions came and went and came again, we moved back into the Centre and then back out again, putting all the safety measures we could in place to make coming into the building as safe as possible for everyone. We continued to offer a blend of face to face and remote counselling, as some clients were unable to return to the Centre, perhaps for health reasons or simply because public transport wasn’t running or because of lack of childcare.

We relied heavily on RCNI throughout, both for guidance and policies for online working, and weekly Manager meetings where issues created by this unique situation were identified and addressed. When I look back on it now, I’m amazed by how everyone simply took on the mammoth task of changing how we worked in very profound ways and still continued to put the survivor at the centre of it all – that continued to be the unchanging mantra and core of our services, while everything else changed around us.’


Waterford Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre  can be contacted by phone call, text or email. 

Freephone: 1800 296 296
Text: 087 2233730
Email: info@waterfordrsac.ie

Rape Crisis Network Ireland’s National Statistics 2020 Report will be available from Thursday 7 October 2021.


Parole Act 2019: Changes Relating to Victim’s Views 

In terms of victims’ rights there are a number of changes introduced by the Parole Act 2019, which came into force on 30 July 2021. These changes enhance victims’ rights and help ensure that a victim’s views are considered by the Parole Board whenever an application for parole (early release subject to conditions) is made by a prisoner.  

The new Act transfers the power to make decisions on parole from the Minister for Justice to the new independent Parole Board, a group of experienced professionals with expertise in various aspects of the criminal justice system. The Board was established on 31 July 2021 and includes one member who is CEO of Victim Support at Court, and others with extensive knowledge of victims’ rights and victim services. 

For the present, the only prisoners who can benefit from parole are those sentenced to life imprisonment who have already been in prison for at least 12 years. 

Although submissions from victims cannot be considered by the Board before the relevant prisoner makes an application for parole, this Act includes some extended rights for victims to have their views on parole considered once an application for parole has been made. 

In most cases, a victim is easily identified – but one change that has been made by the Parole Act is in the case of homicide. In such cases, the definition of “victim” now includes family members of the deceased, and a family member can include anyone who was dependent on the deceased. It can also include anyone with a connection “sufficiently close” to the deceased that s/he should be considered a family member. It is important to note that the definition of family member does not include any relative of the deceased victim who is under investigation for, or is charged with, an offence related to the death of that victim. 

The Parole Board is currently trying to build up a database of contact details of victims in whose case the convicted perpetrator has become eligible for parole, or will do so in the near future, so that they can contact victims directly once a relevant prisoner makes their application for parole. 

If you are a victim who wishes to be contacted by the Parole Board and asked for your views once the relevant prisoner makes an application for parole, you should contact the Victim Liaison Office (VLO) of the Irish Prison Service and give permission to the VLO to pass on your contact details to the Parole Board. Victims who are already registered with the VLO will be contacted and asked for permission for their details to be passed on the Parole Board so that they can be contacted by the Board directly and asked to give their views. 

Victims may give their views either in writing or in person, or through their legal representative, and these views must be taken into account in the Parole Board’s decision on parole for the relevant prisoner. Any victim who does not indicate that they will find their own legal representative to assist them in making submissions to the Board will be assigned one by the Board. 

Victims should be aware that the Parole Board will disclose any written submission from a victim to the relevant prisoner. The victim will be sent a copy of any parole order granted, including any conditions relevant to the victim if the Board considers it appropriate to do so. 

The Parole Board’s own website will be launched in the new few weeks.  


Caroline Counihan
Legal Director, RCNI


Additional Information  

  • The text of the Parole Act 2019 as enacted may be found here.
  • The consolidated text of the Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) Act 2017 may be found here
  • All contact details and links to information about procedures operated by the Victim Liaison Office of the Irish Prison Service, may be accessed here.

Sex attack survivors are ‘worth’ only 0.4% of a €4bn problem

‘I would say that I am old enough to know that there are very few women my age who have not been subjected to some form of sexual assault in their respective lifetimes. I know this because I am one of them.’

Minister Josepha Madigan during a Dáil debate on Domestic, Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (DSGBV) on Tuesday would have had many women nodding in recognition. There are very few women who have not been subjected to sexual assault. Most women have been. A not insignificant number of men. A fifth of girls and almost as many boys will be. A few words that highlight how terrible and banal sexual violence is.

The European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) today announced they will be launching a report calculating the monetary cost of gender-based violence across Europe in August. In this report the cost to Ireland is estimated at €4 billion. €4bn each and every year. 80% of this annual cost of gender-based violence arises directly out of mens’ violence against women. And EIGE estimates funding for victim’s services across Europe amounts to a mere 0.4% of this cost.

Let us remind ourselves that an annual €4bn deficit after the recent economic crash was deemed so untenable it triggered harsh austerity measures for a decade. On reflection, spending more on preventing and addressing sexual and domestic violence during the crash might have been an alternative way to balance our books. Instead, the decade of austerity hit the domestic and sexual violence sectors hard. That was gendered budgeting at its sharpest. That was systemic and institutional misogyny.

A welcome million here and there over recent years saw rape crisis budgets almost reach 2008 levels by 2019. Almost! For the RCNI, the only specialist sexual violence evidence and policy level body in Ireland, we entered into 2020 carrying only 30% of our pre-austerity capacity.

Rape crisis centres have been able to draw on additional funding from Tusla, but the funding can be ad hoc and insecure. We cannot provide survivors with the beginning of what can be a challenging journey in specialist counselling, confronting the impact of the trauma they carry in their lives, and then abruptly finish that relationship because the funding has run out. People accessing Rape Crisis Centres face ever growing waiting lists. We are innovating around how to protect and support survivors on waiting lists when we should not have waiting lists. We cannot build specialization to understand and develop solutions to rape culture, rape myths and systemic hurdles, if we can only bring people in on short term contracts. We cannot deliver survivors voices as statistical evidence without a skilled network curating that data.

Very shortly RCNI will be launching ‘Storm and Stress: An Exploration of Sexual Harassment Amongst Adolescents’ which provides up-to-date evidence that children and young people are experiencing sexual abuse at school. One of our rape crisis counsellors undertook this research as a PhD after our calls to the Department of Education to undertake this research fell on deaf ears over the past decade. We continue to highlight the appalling vista of there being no national policy to combat sexual harassment in schools while the prevalence of harm is so normalized it is hard to grasp.

In the Autumn we will release the National Rape Crisis Statistics from survivors for 2020. We can already tell you that in a sample of seven RCCs there has been a 25% increase in appointments for counselling and support, and a 22% increase in contacts made to Helplines compared to the previous year. All of

these Helplines are funded by donations – no RCC Helpline outside of Dublin is state funded. This is vital information to government as it faces into the challenges cited by the Deputies on Tuesday in the Dail. These statistics are available today only because volunteers across rape crisis centres, our partner software specialist, academics and some of the best data protection experts in Ireland gave of their time and expertise generously and for free. Only in 2020 did the Department of Justice begin to provide some funding support for this work.

In the Autumn we will also complete research into how sexual violence survivors’ needs are being met by specialist counsellors and how we support that ongoing learning. However, there is currently no funding to train more counsellors.

We had two hours in the Dáil this week to discuss what we are doing to prevent sexual violence. When survivors are ‘worth’ only 0.4% of a €4bn scale problem, we should not be congratulating ourselves for ad hoc, insecure, relatively small pots of additional funding. We should be asking why we have not built and secured an infrastructure commensurate with the scale of the problem. This is the opportunity this moment presents, this is what this government can choose to deliver.

Clíona Saidléar is Executive Director of Rape Crisis Network Ireland. This article was first published in the Irish Examiner on Thursday 9 July 2021. 

Changing signage won’t alter lived reality of why women go to toilets in groups

Published in the Irish Examiner, Wednesday 19 May 2021

On any busy night in any busy pub in Ireland (we remember them) there was one question that you can be sure was asked: Why do the women go to the toilets in pairs? This question was generally asked in derision, with a knowing wink – and always rhetorical. A voracious curiosity regarding this behaviour to do with the women’s loos, followed by an entirely contradictory display of disinterest.

What is acknowledged is that there is something peculiar and beyond the mechanisms of toileting and toiletry that happens behind that closed door. Some mystery ‘other’, important enough to remark upon endlessly, perhaps terrifying enough to never speak it.

It is into this subject that the School Design Guide for Sanitary Facilities (SDG) ventured. This guide for schools is intended to assist in the planning and design of both new buildings and retrofitted old buildings and is tasked with five objectives, one of which is the minimisation of bullying. On their own terms these recommendations make a lot of sense. But there might be a problem with the terms.

The definition of bullying by the Department of Education referenced in the SDG is ‘unwanted negative behaviour, verbal, psychological or physical, conducted by an individual or group against another person (or persons) and which is repeated over time.’ But while these correctly defined bullying behaviours inform the guidance, at no point are the characteristics that might be associated with who gets targeted, where and how, explored or named.

For illustration, one might argue that the single biggest change proposed (there are many) is to move away from single sex facilities to unisex facilitates. Yet at no point is sex itself (or indeed other intersectional characteristics) and the impacts they have on adolescents’ lived experiences, referenced. It is as if bullying happens equally to everyone regardless of characteristics – surely a working definition that is the antithesis of what we know about bullying.

As the Ombudsman for Children, Dr Niall Muldoon said recently, reflecting on the 400 serious bullying complaints his office has dealt with in recent years, the Department remains reluctant to collect bullying data and certainly not disaggregated bullying data. Data needed to answer the questions, what type of bullying is happening in our schools, how much of it is happening, to who, by whom? ‘We need to start drilling down into that and investigating whether it has related to racism or homophobia, for example… We have lost seven or eight years of that sort of data-gathering because the Department did not do it.’

In fairness to the SDG team therefore, they had no disaggregated national data on bullying in schools when tasked with designing facilities that would ‘minimise the risk of bullying’. In the absence of this data or public consultation, it is unclear what assumptions they utilized to underpin their recommendations.

For RCNI we are specifically interested in one form of bullying, sexual bullying which is characterised by being highly gendered. Gender matters when it comes to sexual bullying. According to the SAVI Report (2002), 93% of all sexual violence is perpetrated by men, 25% of child abuse is perpetrated by children (predominantly adolescent boys) and around 80% of victims of sexual violence are women and children. In recent CSO crime figures CSO figures, one in five (20%) cases of detected sexual violence which were reported in 2019, both the victim and suspected offender were under 18 when the offence occurred and almost all (99%) suspected offenders of detected sexual violence which was reported in 2019 were male. Numbers so compelling they cannot be ignored, except when they are.

We echo the Ombudsman for Children’s lament regarding our ignorance of what is happening in schools, how sexual assault is minimized and invisibilised. It should also be noted that the recent horrifying Howth incidence of gendered violence, seen by many on social media, happened in a setting of ‘passive surveillance’. This would seem to put in question the effectiveness of such measures as sufficient to minimise this form of bullying and violence. The silence on the difference between bullying behaviors and experiences, by children with different characteristics means it is hard to trust recommendations based on this myopia. It is also hard to see them working.

For as one teacher remarked reflecting on the SDG, “sure it doesn’t matter what they call them, within weeks the kids will have decided which one of the unisex toilets are for the girls’ and which are for the boys’.” She may be right. Girls will still go to the toilet in groups because changing the signage won’t have changed their lived reality – the reality they get to escape for five minutes in the girls’ toilets before they reenter the fray of a culture that is violently misogynistic; five minutes to armor themselves again to run the gauntlet that is everyday sexism, five minutes respite to build mental health resilience because, whether we name it or not, perhaps one of the most compelling reasons girls and women go to the toilet in gangs is not because of what happens inside these places but because of what is happening outside of them.

Dr Clíona Saidléar is Executive Director of Rape Crisis Network Ireland.