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.