Independently monitoring State’s response to sexual violence is a must

Recently we were reminded, yet again, that institutions require independent monitoring if vulnerable people and their interests are to be protected. The review by Dr Geoffrey Shannon SC into St John’s Ambulance published in March found that there had been a ‘significant degree of organisational awareness’ of threats to child safety and a failure to act on this knowledge. March also saw the publication of a report into Dignity and Equality issues in the Defence Forces that found that it “barely tolerates women and, at its worst, verbally, physically, sexually and psychologically abuses women in its ranks”. Both reiterated the essential lesson that institutions should not be policing themselves, which, to our shame, should be a lesson well learned in Ireland. Yet today this government is proposing to set up a whole new infrastructure to prevent and meet the needs of sexual violence victims, without any element of independent monitoring. This is inexplicable.

The problem that is to be addressed involves some of the most vulnerable and victimised people in our society. This is not a niche issue: the Central Statistics Office’s Sexual Violence Survey 2023, the most comprehensive and substantial overview of sexual violence in over 20 years, found that four in ten people experience sexual violence in their lifetime: 52% of women and 28% of men, and the problem is increasing: 65% of young women between the ages of 18 and 24 report being affected by sexual violence. Neither is it an issue that can be relegated to outside the home: in fact, the most dangerous place for women is in a relationship with 64% of women who experienced sexual violence in their lifetime abused by a partner/ex-partner.  Patterns of victimisation emerge that suggest continued vulnerability over a lifetime: 15% of adults were subjected to sexual violence as both a child and as an adult. Rates of disclosure are not high: only 47% of adults who experienced sexual violence in their lifetime told someone about at least one experience of sexual violence. This is the scale of the problem that this new DSGBV infrastructure is designed to address.

The current Zero Tolerance: Third National Strategy to combat Domestic Sexual and Gender Based Violence reflects a step change in the Government’s approach to DSGBV and its prioritisation on the State agenda. For the first time the government is approaching the issue with the belief that change is possible rather than finding better ways to live with the intolerable.

RCNI particularly welcomed the commitment to a dedicated and specialist DSGBV agency. For too long DSGBV had fallen between agencies and departments, which has led to a lack of oversight and understanding of the issues and resulted in gaps in responding effectively. One such stark example is the Department of Housing failing to count how many people on their housing need register were homeless because of domestic violence. The answer is – a lot! The DSGBV Agency General Scheme is currently being examined by the Oireachtas Committee on Justice.  However, neither the Strategy nor the draft legislation contains provision for independent monitoring, apart from delegation of monitoring around the one aspect of children to the existing Ombudsman.

The State is committed to oversight and accountability within government, with the Minister for Justice and cabinet keeping a close watch and steer on the new Agency and its implementation and coordination of the Zero tolerance strategy.  This is to be welcomed. However, what is neglected is the establishment, resourcing, or indeed any proposal to place on a statutory footing, a mechanism for independently monitoring and evaluating the government’s adherence to its obligations.

Not only would such a mechanism do much to support the work of the Agency and government, the Council of Europe Istanbul Convention, of which Ireland is a signatory, explicitly requires effective monitoring under Article 10. Its evaluation of other countries’ attempts to meet the obligations under Article 10 points out the challenge. In their 2016 report they stated:  ‘A situation in which close institutional ties exist between those who implement measures and bear political responsibility for them on the one hand and those who are supposed to evaluate the efficacy of those measures on the other, or even one in which the two groups are identical, provides fertile ground for conflicts of interests and can weaken the analysis.’

We have learnt many times over in Ireland, particularly around sexual violence, that leaving authorities to police themselves is not just bad practice but is failure of design, it would appear the Council of Europe agree.

We cannot begin this new page in addressing sexual violence by replicating old and failed practices.


Dr Clíona Sáidléar, Executive Director, Rape Crisis Network Ireland

Originally published in the Irish Examiner here