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'It could be anyone - your sister, mother, niece or aunt - rape happens'

Lavinia Kerwick, the first rape survivor in Ireland to waive her anonymity, has called for more supports to be made available to fellow survivors.

Lavinia Kerwick at today's DRCC conference in Dublin city.
Lavinia Kerwick at today's DRCC conference in Dublin city.
Image: Andres Poveda

LAVINIA KERWICK HAS called for additional supports to be made available to rape survivors who are navigating the judicial system.

Kerwick, the first rape survivor in Ireland to waive her anonymity after the man convicted of raping her received a suspended sentence, said survivors need guidance when dealing with such “a life-altering crime”.

“I also hope when a case comes to court, the legal system will understand that victims have already gone through so much to get that case to court and their bravery and belief in the judicial system should be acknowledged.

“A family has been torn apart, a victim’s life has become unrecognisable and every aspect of their life has been scrutinised. More supports are needed, especially going through the legal system. I can say that we don’t want to be there, it wasn’t in our plan.

“Don’t isolate victims or survivors even more by sidelining them. Yes we are there as a witness, but we are also there as human beings who don’t understand the language that is used in court by barristers, solicitors and judges,” she said. 

Kerwick made the remarks at a conference to mark the 40th anniversary of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre (DRCC).

Kerwick, who took part a famous interview with Gerry Ryan in 1993, said a counsellor once told her “it’s never too late to talk” and urged people to seek help if they need it. 

“Don’t underestimate rape survivors, yes there is pain and an emotional toll when we speak out, but we do it from a place of truth and conviction and because we want things to change.

“Rape is rape, it’s very unforgiving. The face of a victim or survivor is a powerful image and one that shows people how rape impacts them. It could be anyone – sister, mother, niece or aunt – and that’s the point: rape happens,” Kerwick stated. 

Savi report

The Savi – Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland – report conducted in 2002 is the last comprehensive national report we have on the topic. The government has committed to carrying out a new one, but said it could take five years to complete.

Ann Marie Gill, Chairperson of the Board of the DRCC, said the report is urgently needed.

“We are now more in need of another Savi report than ever because that was 20 years ago, life has changed,” Gill said, noting that more research also needs to be done on the impact the internet and social media is having, particularly on young people, in relation to sexual violence.

State funding of €150,000 was made available this year to allow the Central Statistics Office (CSO), which is overseeing the report, to carry out preliminary technical research. The preparatory phase of the project will include conducting a pilot survey in 2020.

The large-scale survey will look in detail at the experience of women and men in Ireland of sexual violence and abuse, with repeat surveys every decade.

“The goal is for an ongoing programme of high quality research in a sensitive and ethical way, to ensure a robust set of data to inform Government policy,” Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan recently said in the Dáil.

‘Absolutely catastrophic’

Gill noted that much has changed in the 40 years since the DRCC was set up, but that many problems remain.

“When the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre first opened its doors in 1979, it was not a crime for a man to rape his wife, can you believe it?,” she said, noting that this law was only brought in in 1990.

“So a lot has been done but there is a lot more to do,” she added.

The DRCC received 79 calls in 1979; it has received almost 14,500 calls to date in 2019.

The majority of people who contacted the centre last year (13,376 cases) were female (77.3%), while about one in five (21.6%) were male. The most common type of abuse people wished to discuss were adult rape (45%) and child sexual abuse (33%). 

“Rape and sexual abuse are still very much part of our society. The work of the centre is as challenging and necessary as ever,” Gill said.

Oonagh McPhillips, Deputy Secretary General with responsibility for criminal justice at the Department of Justice and Equality, said supporting rape survivors is “absolutely a priority for the department”.

She said a range of measures are being implemented in Ireland in order to ratify the Istanbul Convention which aims to prevent and combat violence, including sexual violence, against women.

“It’s not any one thing, it’s a range of things,” she said, noting the importance of training  the judiciary, solicitors and gardaí so they are better equipped to help survivors of sexual and domestic violence. 

McPhillips said one area of particular concern is the attrition rate in rape cases in Ireland. “The attrition rate is absolutely catastrophic, there’s no doubt about that,” she stated.

McPhillips said the inclusion of coercive control, whereby a partner or ex-partner displays a persistent pattern of controlling or threatening behaviour, in the Domestic Violence Act 2018 ia “one really powerful thing” that has been achieved in recent years.

If you or someone you know has been affected by sexual violence you can contact the DRCC’s National 24-Hour Helpline on 1800 778 888. More support information is available here.

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Órla Ryan

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