AS we face into a somewhat uncertain political future in light of the recent General Election, there is one thing that is certain. The crime of sexual violence, which has affected so many, is within our power to prevent, and the new government must now display leadership and invest not just in responding to sexual violence, but in preventing it from happening in the first place.
Over the past 40 years, massive strides have been made in building up and improving our responses to sexual violence. To date, much of our attention has rightly been focused on the vital work of responding appropriately to the crime of sexual violence; on building infrastructure and improving our responses. However, the job is far from complete and now we have an obligation to better understand how a crime so universally abhorred continues to thrive in our culture, and take steps to address this.
In meaningful terms, this commitment must support research; to establish why these crimes occur, to test the most appropriate means of addressing them, to enable us to form evidence-based, measurable policies and actions that prevent sexual violence.
One element of preventing sexual violence is by tackling the culture that exists within our school environments. Rape Crisis Network Ireland is calling on the next government to take decisive action to ensure the safety of young people from the threat of sexual violence within secondary schools, and make it “safe to learn”.
All children and young people should have the opportunity to learn in a safe environment. Safety includes freedom from the threat, fear or fact of all forms of sexual violence, and there is a statutory obligation to ensure this; however, it is clear that we are currently not meeting that obligation.
Evidence gathered from rape crisis centres working with young survivors across Ireland proves that sexual harassment, threat, fear and indeed sexual assault is experienced by children in our schools. Unfortunately, no research exists to define the scale and extent of this problem; instead there is a reliance on the individual testimony of young people attending rape crisis centres.
Therefore, as a matter of urgency, the next government needs to build an understanding of this challenge, and support schools to address the issue in a proactive manner. Given the centrality of the school community in the lives of young people, children in secondary schools must also be empowered to address the situation, through effective, evidence-based interventions.
What is really needed is for school communities to very explicitly promote a zero tolerance approach to sexual harassment and violence in all its forms, no matter how trivial the issue is perceived to be. In the absence of such an approach, it is likely that what children learn is to minimise, laugh off, deny, or indeed to tolerate sexual violence, either as a perpetrator or target.
Our government also needs to ensure that responsibility for a comprehensive sexual violence policy is assigned; currently it is lost between the Action Plan on Bullying, which fails to address sexual harassment and violence (bar cyberbullying), and Children First, which addresses how individual incidents are dealt with by the authorities, but does not prevent them from happening in the first place.
Schools should also be supported in responding to the support and care needs of child victims and indeed child perpetrators in their school community; national guidance needs to be put in place to assist schools to do this in order to reduce instances of secondary trauma and prevent negative impacts on school performance.
The findings of a 2014 qualitative study by RCNI on sexual consent and alcohol consumption, ‘Young People, Alcohol and sex: What’s consent got to do with it?’ demonstrated that young people themselves felt they were inadequately prepared to negotiate consent safely, leaving them vulnerable to sexual violence.
Curriculum content therefore needs to address consent, and under the stewardship of the new Minister for Education, schools must become places within which these conversations are had and young people are empowered and equipped to understand and respond to these challenges, in an environment within which it is safe to learn.
We challenge the next government to set a target such that in five years’ time if a survivor comes to them they can truly say, ‘we did everything within our powers to prevent this from happening to you’. Good intentions on sexual violence are no longer enough. We need to ensure those good intentions translate into effective prevention.
Clíona Saidléar is the head of the Rape Crisis Network Ireland. The Mayo Rape Crisis Centre in Castlebar can be contacted on 094 9025657.