Early intervention in children’s lives is the strongest commitment we can make to prevention and protection from sexual violence. Understanding the experience of adolescents is the first step to shaping interventions that work.

On Thursday 29 July Rape Crisis Network Ireland launched its new report ‘Storm and Stress: An Exploration of Sexual Harassment Amongst Adolescents’. This vital report fills a critical gap in our knowledge regarding adolescent experiences of sexual harassment, explores Irish adolescents’  understanding of sexual harassment within their peer communities and outlines the responses required to address it.  

The comprehensive report was launched by Ombudsman for Children Dr Niall Muldoon and Dr Conor O’Mahony, Government Special Rapporteur on Child Protection in an online event this afternoon that included a presentation by Dr Michelle Walsh, author of the report, and a panel discussion on how we, as a society, can disrupt the processes through which adolescents become the victims and perpetrators and repeat victims and perpetrators of sexual harassment.  

Cliona Saidléar, executive director of Rape Crisis Network Ireland said, when asked if they felt they felt they had the power to combat sexual harassment, 81% of adolescents said, if given the support, they believed they could. There can be no clearer signal to government and all of society of the task we have at hand.’ 

Said Dr O’Mahony: 

‘This report fills a vital gap in our knowledge of sexual harassment experienced and perpetrated by adolescents in Ireland. It provides evidence of a worryingly high incidence of such harassment, and of the need for targeted measures aimed at protecting adolescents. Education has a key role to play in this respect. Human rights law gives children and young people a right to be protected from sexual harassment, and obliges States to take reasonable measures to protect against foreseeable risks. This report demonstrates that the risk of sexual harassment is an entirely foreseeable aspect of the everyday life of Irish adolescents, and that the Government, in tandem with State agencies, educators, and civil society, needs to do more to respond to this reality.’ 

Said Dr Muldoon: 

“This is a very timely report, with strong recommendations and it serves to really highlight an area of today’s youth culture that has been ignored for too long.  I commend Dr. Michelle Walsh for her sterling efforts on this research in questioning nearly 600 teenagers and meeting with, and interviewing, over 90 of them before also speaking with 21 Youth Workers. The robust data in ‘Storm and Stress’ goes some way to filling the gap in information around this issue. 

A point I have made consistently since becoming Ombudsman in 2015 is that the Department of Education needs to improve the collection, collation and analysis of data about bullying in schools and that it also needs to separate out information on sexual bullying and sexual harassment. 

In 2016, the Office recommended to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child that State authorities should collate specific information and data on bullying countrywide to determine the issues and solutions that were occurring in schools. The Committee did indeed recommend that to be done in 2016 and they have once again, in preparation for their next review of the Irish State in 2022, requested disaggregated data from the State about cases of bullying and harassment in schools.” 

The study outlines the sexual harassment witnessed and experienced by 600 Irish adolescents within their peer groups, over a 12 month period. Its findings include: 

  • 80% of adolescents disclosed being subjected to some form of sexual harassment  
  • 24% of adolescents disclosed that they were subjected to physical or extreme forms of sexual harassment   
  • 83% of adolescents  witnessed some form of sexual harassment  
  • 28% of adolescents witnessed physical or extreme forms of sexual harassment 
  • 78% of adolescent participants said that sexual harassment occurred within their peer community  
  • 100% of the youth workers who participated in the study stated that they had witnessed sexual harassment with levels varying from verbal to extreme forms of sexual harassment  
  • 57% of youth workers experienced sexual harassment from adolescents while at work  
  • 68% of LGBT+ adolescent participants experienced serious sexual harassment compared with 20% of the whole population  
  • 47% of adolescents did not know how to report sexual harassment within their school 

Said Dr Cliona Saidléar, executive director of Rape Crisis Network Ireland:  

‘This report demonstrates the urgency of a national policy to combat sexual harassment in second-level schools. This policy must include counting sexual harassment and assault in schools, addressing the negative social, educational and psychological harms associated with sexual bullying and violence, and promoting a safe to learn environment that includes holistic support for survivors and intervention with perpetrators.’ 

Said Dr Michelle Walsh, author of the report:  

‘Having worked in the area of sexual violence for over a decade, I thought that there was nothing that I could hear that would shock me. I can still recall the feeling of shock having listened to the reality of the sexual abuse and harassment to which adolescents are exposed.  I have done my best to ensure that my findings are discussed in the public arena so that as a society we can respond to the commonplace and unacceptable reality of what our adolescents are living with. Most of all that we can respond to young people’s plea for support.’