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