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.