In a decade of Ireland’s landmark centenaries forcing the nation to reckon with its very
birth, 1918 will mark a conflicting and oft-forgotten anniversary for Ireland’s women. As
of the 6th of February nearly 100 years ago Irish women first gained the right to vote and to
stand for election. However, the right was granted by none other than the very colonial
master it was trying to break free from, with the UK House of Parliament passed the the
Representation of the People Act. Furthermore it was limited to women over the age of 30
who met certain stipulations including marriage, property ownership and holding university degrees.
Even when that limited number of Irish women took to the polls for the first time later that
year and one of the most prominent female figures of the independence movement, Constance
Markievicz became the first women ever elected to the Houses of Parliament, she, as a loyal
Sinn Fein member, refused her seat.
Such a tumultuous beginning of Irish women’s role in public life was fitting of the decade that followed. Women were granted unconditional equal voting rights to men when the free state was established in 1922, becoming one of the first countries in the world to do so. However, as a conservative government took hold and the Irish public sheltered more and more in religion and social conservatism in the wake of civil war, rights slowly began being stripped away once more, culminating in women’s exclusion from mandatory jury duty in 1927, and the gradual slide into limiting women’s social roles. This was laid out quite clearly in the 1937 Irish constitution in which Article 41.2 stipulated the priority for women of their domestic role over work stating that "In particular, the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved," and that it would endeavour to ensure "mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home."
So 100 years later, how have Irish women fared? The last century saw women go from revolutionaries to religious icons, social leaders in national politics to socially excluded in Magdalen laundries, the subject of great public benevolence through the Marianism of the 30’s to the subject social scorn even amongst of female cultural leaders such as author Edna O’Brien faced in the 50's. And yet they have bounced back again, from a trail-blazing first female president of Ireland in Mary Robinson to one third of today’s Dail. With such a rocky cultural past, how can one truly assess how far Irish women have come and where we stand today? We decided to look at the data. In this three part-series we will be analyzing a woman’s place in modern Irish society by examining their social, economic and political staning in modern Irish society and ultimately where women place in Ireland today.
Ireland’s most comprehensive report on sexual violence, the Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland (SAVI) Report in 2002 began with the line ‘The prevalence of sexual violence in Ireland is unknown”. After decades of institutional and domestic abuse going on beneath the surface, the Royal College Surgeons aimed to bring Ireland’s hidden violence to light. Through extensive research that included a survey of 3000 people, this special report unearthed some shocking facts about sexual violence in Ireland, and violence against women in particular. The above isotype references some of those findings, including that 1 in 10 Irish women admitted they had experienced rape. 42% of women reported some form of sexual abuse or assault in their lifetime. A breakdown of the types of sexual violence they faced is outlined below.
Some of SAVI’s most important findings were those that challenged conventional social understandings of sexual violence against women. The first was the prevalence of sexual violence in society. It was common in Ireland, as in many countries, to automatically question the veracity of rape allegations and cast suspicion on the victim's intent, always undermining the number of reports of rape but here were randomly selected women admitting rape without any credible malicious motivation and the numbers were shockingly high - particularly that one in 10 Irish women experience rape. Given a chance to articulate their experiences free of social judgement, it was recorded that 40% of women assaulted in their adult life disclosed their stories of sexual assault for the first time to the SAVI interviewer. While the prevalence of rape might have come as a shock, the report’s findings was also able to challenge common assumptions about the nature of rape, challening a common belief that rape is committed by strangers. While the prevelance of stranger-led assaults was still high, the below graphs shows that the majority of the time, the attacker was known to the victim and in fact, was often a partner or friend.
SAVI’s findings did a lot to change public perceptions of the sexual violence women face and highlighted its alarming prevalence. However, the report may very well have been a victim of its own success. Such was its impact that no follow up SAVI report has been done in the past 15 years, leaving women’s advocates right back at the very first line the SAVI Report - ‘The prevalence of sexual violence in Ireland is unknown”. Today in Ireland many women’s agencies are very much in the dark about the scale and nature of sexual violence for women in society. They can only go on periodic indications from other official bodies but even then those results are impossible to be 100% clear on. For example, crime reporting statistics from the past 10 years show that the prevealence of reports of sexual offenses has dramatically risen, almost doubling between 2007 and 2010. Between 2015 and 2016, it increased by 8% alone. The question women's advocates are left with is 'is this the result of increased assaults or increased awareness and more women speaking openly about their experiences and willing to bring them to police?' “That 8pc increase needs to be analysed," says one such advocate, Jacqueline Healy of the National Women's Council of Ireland."we need to understand what that actually means.
Certainly, one could argue that, lead by cultural leaders such as the popular young adult author Louise O’Neill who has become a popular voice against sexual violence, with both her book ‘Asking for it” and an RTE documentary on the subject of consent being received well, that the tide is turning for the next generation of young informed and empowered Irish. Alternatively, one could also ask 'is the increased attention toward sexual violence in the public spotlight in response to an increase in sexual violence itself? Could new forms of sexual violence be contribtuting toward such an increase, perhaps aided and provoked by the wider availability of violent pornography or new forms through technology and as a result cyberstalking and bullying. Certainly, as the SAVI uncovered, sexual violence against women appeared to be increasing with each generation as the below graph outlines. What do we know about how sexual violence is affecting Ireland's next generation of women who came of age in the last 15 years?
Without more up-to-date Irish research women’s organisations have to look to European reports such as the FRA 'Violence Against Women: An EU wide Survey' from 2012 (detailed in the EU map below). Despite the fact the survey included 42,000 women across Europe, it’s broadness of scope may also be its flaw, given that some may argue there was not enough country-specific detail in this report (nor could there have been expected to be) for it to fully represent the current state of sexual and physical violence in Ireland.
However, the report did offer some up-to-date information on domestic violence,
highlighting that 12% of women experience some form of stalking, 31% experience
psychological violence by a partner while 14% experienced physical violence
(as outlined in our first graph). Compared to other European countries Ireland
did show evidence of being on the lower end of the scale when it comes to rates
of physical and sexual violence against women (illustrated above). However,
as Healy argues, we simply need more comparable data to be gain a truly accurate
and adequately detailed understanding of violence against women in Ireland today.
A SAVI 2 is the only way to achieve that.
“We really need a SAVI 2 report which looks at our situation,” says Jackie Healy. "We want to get a real grasp of what the nature and extent of sexual violence is. There’s been a 15 year gap and a lot of technological change. By being able to compare with SAVI 1 we could see what patterns and trends and factors are influencing violence. It would then help us see what reform, legislative and policy changes need to be made. Healy warns that without proper research it was impossible to know whether it was the incidences of sexual violence or the reporting of sexual violence that has increased. “That 8pc increase needs to be analysed and we need to understand what that actually means.” She is calling on the government to commission the SAVI 2 report and for allocations of funding for the research to be made. “Either way sexual violence is taking place, it has to be a political priority. “A commitment from government to fund that piece of research would be very much welcome.”
Until then, without more data, the prevalence of sexual violence in Ireland is in danger of returning to being an unknown.