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Opinion: “The next government needs to treat the rape epidemic as seriously as the housing and health crises”

Lavinia Kerwick was the first Irish rape survivor to waive her anonymity.

Lavinia Kerwick

IN 1991, I was brutally raped. I still suffer long-term physical effects; it destroyed me inside and out.

He pleaded guilty and received a suspended sentence. I felt I had no choice but to go public, so I went on the Gerry Ryan Show on 2FM. It was lonely and isolating to go public, but Gerry was my salvation.

Fast forward to this week, when two men were jailed for seven years for raping a woman at a house party. After the sentencing in the Central Criminal Court, supporters of the convicted rapist shouted at her: “you’re a liar” and “you’re going to pay for this”.

Rape derailed my life. When you’re raped, your plans and ambitions can go out the window, and going to this medical consultation or that legal appointment almost becomes a full-time job in itself.

  • (Read more here on how you can support a major Noteworthy project delving into what happens when adults or children come forward to report rape or sexual abuse.)

Fewer than one in ten people report rapes in Ireland, but organisations like One in Four and the Rape Crisis Centre are flooded with reports. The gardaí were so supportive and they minded me through the whole process, but the criminal justice as a whole remains underfunded and I believe that judges could benefit from training around the trauma of sexual violence.

I always encourage people to report sexual crimes to the gardaí but ultimately it must be their own decision.

We all know that securing a conviction can be difficult. The gardaí were so thorough with me and determined to gather all the evidence they needed. Court, however, can be a very sterile experience.

Victims don’t get enough information before going to court. I understand that the victim is merely a witness in the State’s case, but I feel strongly that we should have our own legal representation.

There have been improvements in the system in recent years, and judges are learning, but we need more change.

Why are character references allowed? It shouldn’t matter if a rapist carried out a rape when they were in or out of character, or whether they play GAA or rugby. I know that a rapist has to be defended in court but so does the victim and the only time their voice is heard is if they are lucky enough to get a conviction. There is something missing in the middle.

A victim can be placed on the stand and interrogated about what they were wearing and what they had to drink. Their reputation is torn apart. Why is the accused not asked what clothes he had on or about his demeanour on the night?

While the presumption of innocence is important, the two rapists at this week’s sentencing had already been found guilty and yet the traumatised victim was still abused and threatened from a height. This is so wrong. One simple way of stopping this would be to allow the victim or survivor to leave court first; the room needs to be cleared safely.

People need more confidence in the system. The incoming government needs to treat the rape epidemic as seriously as the housing and health crises and, indeed, rape victims are more vulnerable to being affected by homelessness or with serious physical or mental health problems. Investing in supports and making sure that people who come forward can access immediate treatment isn’t just the right thing to do; it would also save the State money in the long-term.

I give talks to students at Maynooth University about consent, and I have no doubt that Ireland’s poor and patchy sex and relationship education contributes to the problem. Young men, in particular, need to know how utterly devastating rape is.

We also need to look inside ourselves. When people come forward, particularly if they are reporting another family member, it can seem easier to sweep it under the carpet. I was so lucky to have support in my family.

I’ve never regretted reporting the rapist. The court case was traumatic and the outcome was unjust, but I don’t regret going to court. And I have never regretted going public.

Self-care is hugely important for rape victims and survivors. Be kind to yourself. I was so determined to heal and be better, that I used to go back and forth from Kilkenny to Clonmel for counselling. No matter what, I would always make sure to have some money in my pocket and I’d treat myself to a coffee, a magazine or a packet of Murray Mints. I would look forward to coming out of counselling for that treat.

Rape does not define you. You will have good and bad days but there are supports out there and friends, family, support organisations and other survivors will walk with you.

Lavinia Kerwick is a campaigner for victims of rape and an advocate for reform of the criminal justice system. She successfully campaigned for the introduction of victim impact statements and for the right of the Director of Public Prosecutions to appeal lenient sentences. 

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised here you can contact:

  • The Samaritans: 116123, jo@samaritans.ie
  • Rape Crisis Helpline: 1800 778888, rapecrisishelp.ie
  • For details of sexual assault treatment units, see hse.ie/satu
  • Crime Victims Helpline: 116006, see visit here

SPEAK OR SURVIVE Investigation 

Do you want to know if survivors of sexual abuse properly supported when they come forward?

The Noteworthy team want to do an in-depth investigation into what happens when adults or children come forward to report rape or sexual abuse and talk to survivors of sex crimes about their experience of the criminal justice system. 

Here’s how to help support this proposal>

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