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Katherine Zappone 'Students will be asked to challenge ideas of what consent is'

We need to face up to the reality of sexual abuse, violence and harassment, writes Katherine Zappone.

IN 2017, AS a result of the strength and courage of individual women, the lid has been prised open on the reality of sexual harassment, abuse and violence in Ireland.

We owe it to all our citizens to lift the lid completely. We need to deal with what lies beneath.

As the only Independent woman at the Cabinet table I am determined that government will play its part.

National survey

As a first step the government has agreed to do a national survey on the prevalence of sexual abuse and violence in Ireland today and emerging trends. This will be the second such survey. It is 16 years since the last one was done. It is time we found out what is happening in Ireland in 2018.

Significantly, there will be a second part to this work. A comprehensive examination will take place of the data available in respect of sexual harassment in the workplace. This will also look at whether we have adequate protections in place to protect employees.

This examination is recognition of our belief in and support for all of those who have suffered sexual harassment, many of them silently, in the workplace.

Consent courses

As part of my determination to bring about change, I am supporting the introduction of sexual consent courses into our schools. This will begin with a programme in sixty secondary schools.

The programme is being established to build on the work of a foundation established in memory of 17-year-old student Manuela Riedo, murdered in Galway ten years ago.

Frontline agencies such as the rape crisis centres and the Manuela Foundation are doing great work in this area. Now Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, is to work in partnership with them.

The process of recruiting schools to take part in this initial first step is underway. Soon 1,500 transition year students will be taking part. The aim is to equip young people to be able to give informed consent.

During the course of six weeks students will be asked to challenge ideas of what consent is, debate their opinions on sexual violence and examine how it affects them in their lives.

The sessions explore a range of ways to prevent sexual violence from happening. This includes developing a shared respect for boundaries, the right to say no and bodily integrity. The programme also explores safe options for dealing with challenging behaviour and explores a campaign to engage males in the prevention of rape and sexual violence.

It is envisaged that, out of the project, an evidence-based quality assured programme aimed at preventing sexual violence will be linked to the mainstream educational curriculum.

I’ve been greatly encouraged

I encourage not just schools, but also our youth organisations and clubs to get involved with this work. There is no doubt it can be challenging but I believe that our young people are ready. As I meet teenagers across this country I have been greatly encouraged by their commitment to equality, fairness and justice for all.

Their views, the work they undertake and the campaigns they are involved in are literally a world away from the stories of harassment and abuse which have dominated the headlines in recent months.

As well as listening to young voices I have used my visits to meet at first hand the frontline social and care workers from Tusla who are supporting victims of domestic violence.

In Dublin, the Midlands, the Mid West, West and the South East I have also listened to those who have been abused. The helplines, care and the refuges which are being provided are doing excellent work. There is no doubt in my mind that the information, support and protection being provided saves lives.

In 2017 I supported this work by providing an extra €1.5m to the rape crisis centres and other frontline agencies. This year the increase will be bigger. I am asking Tusla to rise funding by €1.7m to a total of €23.8m.

The money will be used to ensure that those who are suffering abuse can access services no matter where they live. There will also be a special focus on children affected by domestic violence. The extra funding underlines my commitment to volunteers, workers and teams in the frontline.

We are all responsible

We all bear a responsibility. Government, advocacy groups, employers, schools, State agencies and individuals – young and old, need to work together to make our country a better and safer place to live and work.

We need to face up to the reality of sexual abuse, violence and harassment. We need to address it. We need to put policies and funding in place to combat it.

I am determined to see real progress on this in 2018.

Katherine Zappone is Minister for Children and Youth Affairs.

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