Keynote Address at the 40th Anniversary Conference of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre

40th anniversary conference of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre

7 November 2019

“Sexual Violence in Ireland: Past, Present and Future”

Keynote Address


Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a singular honour and privilege to be with you together to mark 40 years of outstanding work by this Centre, by its staff and by its volunteers.

The Dublin Rape Crisis Centre has been at the forefront of the Irish response to sexual violence, working to prevent harm and heal trauma – doing what everyone needs to be doing: listening, believing and supporting people who have experienced sexual assault, rape or childhood sexual abuse.

The Ireland of today is a very different country from 1979. We are a more open, tolerant and liberal society; a society which is more willing to listen to often unpalatable truth and not to sweep it under the carpet. The Dublin Rape Crisis Centre has played a valuable part in shaping the country we live in today.

However, although society has become more open, tolerant and liberal, almost 14,000 people contacted the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre helpline last year alone. 77% were women. This negative trend is reflected worldwide. UN Women continue to estimate that 35% of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual violence at some point in their lives and in some national studies worldwide the figure is far higher. More than 700 million women are married before 18. Of those women, more than 1 in 3 before the age of 15. At least 200 million women and girls have undergone female genital mutilation.

Just last week, the UN Secretary General stated that: “A growing number of armed groups use gender inequality as a strategic objective”, with “misogyny part of their core ideology”.   “And, of course, we know that women and girls continue to pay the consequences of conflict in general”. In the latest annual report from the UN Secretary General on Women and peace and security, over 50 parties to conflict in situations on the agenda of the Security Council are credibly suspected of having committed or instigated patterns of rape and other forms of sexual violence and at least 1 in 5 refugee or displaced women experience sexual violence.

Throughout the world, sexual violence remains far too hidden and underreported and any figure we put forward will underestimate its prevalence. Sexual violence against boys and men is possibly even more underreported due to stigma, humiliation and power dynamics.

We must never forget that behind each statistic there is a real person, their family and their friends. It is absolutely crucial that we listen, we believe, and we support. In many victims’ testimonies, all too often we hear that the manner in which the assault is dealt with by the authorities can cause further trauma and violation.

Sexual violence is a serious public health and human rights issue. The impact it has on people affected and those close to them can be devastating. So too can complacency around a narrative which demeans women. It is not normal to make remarks about sexually predatory behaviour; to make shameful comments about women’s bodies; to disrespect womens’ intellect and ambitions; to dismiss such remarks as “locker room banter”.

This creates a chilling culture that we thought was ancient history. It insults our most basic values as individuals; values which are enshrined in the European Union and underpinned by human rights – equality, justice and dignity.

The human rights of women and girls are a central priority for the European Union. Promoting the human rights of women and girls informs and inspires our policies and actions internally and worldwide, in stable, conflict and post-conflict situations. We do this not only because it is the right thing, but because no country nor region can truly prosper if it stifles the potential of its women and girls and deprives itself of the contributions of half of its people.

Todays’ discussion could not be more timely. This anniversary coincides with the series of milestone anniversaries on gender equality and girls’ and women’s human rights: This year is the 40th anniversary of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the 25th anniversary of the ground-breaking International Conference on Population and Development which we will celebrate in Nairobi next week.

Next year is the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and the 20th anniversary of the landmark UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security.

We must keep up the momentum. We have a unique opportunity to reenergise the global community, breathe new life into the gender equality agenda and sustain and amplify gains made over the last few decades. The European Union is ready to accelerate progress. The European Union is already by far the first investor in gender equality worldwide. The European Commission committed €15 billion worth of developing funding in a gender sensitive manner in 2018. Of this, funding targeted specifically to gender equality and women’s empowerment amounted to €600 million.

The EU is also a leading humanitarian aid donor on the promotion and protection of girls’ and women’s human rights. The European Consensus on Humanitarian Aid, the policy framework for the EU when acting in response to humanitarian crises, stresses the need to integrate gender considerations, including protection strategies against sexual and gender-based violence, in humanitarian response.

During 2017 and 2018, it is estimated that the EU allocated more than €62 million in humanitarian aid for the prevention of and response to sexual and gender-based violence worldwide under its protection and health programming.  From June 2017 to December 2018, the EU led the Call to Action on Protection from gender-based violence in Emergencies. The Call to Action is a global initiative, which brings together 82 partners, including states and donors, international organisations and non-governmental organisations aiming to drive change and foster accountability in the humanitarian system to address gender-based violence.

We are ready to do more and to do it better.

Preventing, combatting and prosecuting all forms of sexual and gender-based violence, including intimate partner violence, harmful practices such as female genital mutilation and child, early and forced marriage, as well as conflict-related sexual and gender-based violence, sexual harassment and abuse, online violence and bullying is of the utmost priority to the EU and its Member States.

Sexual and gender-based violence is a structural and global phenomenon that knows no social, economic or national boundaries and exists in every country. Violence may affect all women and girls, with no exception, and impact all aspects of their daily lives. This includes those women and girls who face the impact of multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination and violence in the context of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance on the full enjoyment of all human rights by women and girls.

The EU signed in 2017 the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention, as the first pan-European legal instrument and the most far-reaching international treaty to prevent and combat violence against women including sexual violence. The EU is now completing the internal process towards the ratification.

By accepting the Convention, governments are obliged to change their laws, introduce practical measures and allocate resources to adopt a zero-tolerance approach to violence against women, including domestic violence. Preventing and combating such violence is no longer a matter of goodwill; it is a legal obligation.

The entry into force of the Istanbul Convention in Ireland on 1 July this year is an important signal of zero tolerance as well as support to victims of sexual violence.

In her first speech before the European Parliament in July, European Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen committed to make gender equality an overarching priority of the new Commission’s mandate for the upcoming period. She expressed her determination to take the necessary measures to accelerate the EU accession to the Istanbul Convention.

The EU will continue investing in raising awareness, while building more equal, educated and respectful societies within and outside our borders. Ensuring men and boys have an active and meaningful role in supporting behavioural change, addressing discriminatory social norms and combating gender stereotypes is fundamental to eliminating gender inequality.

Violence must be addressed in all its forms, including online. Technology has the power to connect and empower, but it can also reinforce and normalise gender roles and cultural customs and create new pathways for violence and abuse. The online world is not just a mirror image, but a hall of mirrors of the offline world, reflecting and amplifying the positive and negative.

For women and girls, this mirror image often reflects a culture of misogyny, marginalisation and violence.

The EU is strongly committed to ensuring all survivors are guaranteed access to comprehensive psychological and health care services, as well as justice and reparations. We expect all states to conduct effective investigation of those crimes, to bring perpetrators to justice and to ensure accountability. We have been working together with others in the UN context on a number of initiatives to tackle the problem. Progress has been made for example through Security Council Resolution 2106, which supports recourse to avenues of justice, the Declaration of Commitment to end Sexual Violence in Conflict and two new Security Council Resolutions this year: 2467 and 2493. These two new Resolutions significantly strengthen prevention through justice and accountability and affirm, for the first time, that a survivor-centred approach must guide every aspect of the response of affected countries and the international community. But further efforts are needed.

In that regard, the EU strongly supports the Initiative for Survivors of Conflict-related sexual Violence, known as the Mukwege Fund. This is an initiative from the Mukwege Foundation, the Nadia Initiative and the UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict to provide financial support to individuals and groups to address the long-term consequences of conflict-related sexual violence.

This continues the remarkable work of Nobel Peace Prize winners, Dr. Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad, to end sexual violence in war and armed conflict. The goal of the Fund is to complement justice mechanisms and address the specific needs of sexual violence survivors. The European Commission will allocate €2million in its 2020 budget to support the Fund.

In December 2018, the European Council adopted Conclusions on Women, Peace and Security and welcomed a new EU Strategic Approach to Women, Peace and Security. In July this year an Action Plan for the effective implementation and promotion of the Strategy was adopted. The Strategy and Action Plan take a holistic approach which addresses sexual violence as part of the broader women, peace and security agenda and the broader continuum of violence against women, recognising that sexual and gender-based violence are also the results of gender inequalities and patriarchal contexts.

One fundamental aspect of the policy is the commitment to analyse and address gendered root causes of conflict and of gender inequality, inside and outside the EU, at the early planning of all EU external actions.

In my mandate, I work closely with Ambassador Mara Marinaki, the Principal Advisor on Gender and on the implementation of UN Security Council’s first resolution on Women, Peace and Security 1325. One such example is a recent seminar in which we both participated for all gender and human rights focal points from EU Delegations all over the world.

The EU is committed to enforce a prevention-based zero-tolerance policy for all forms of sexual and gender-based violence committed by EU staff or staff deployed in common security and defence missions and operations, as well as commanders/managers, contractors and partners. Whenever the EU deploys staff, including in common security and defence policy missions/operations and humanitarian interventions, it will ensure that clear instructions have been provided to this effect and that proper structures are in place to enforce this policy.

This includes through a robust reporting mechanism, complaint mechanism for victims and accountability and sanctions for perpetrators.

I commend Ireland’s commitment in promoting peace and advancing in the Women, Peace and Security Agenda implementation, referring to the adoption of its third National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security (2019-2024), on 21 June 2019. There are synergies between the Irish National Action Plan and the EU Action Plan as both take a holistic approach to the Women, Peace and Security Agenda. This underlines Ireland’s overarching commitment to advance gender equality in all endeavours and to further examine the gendered impacts of poverty, inequality, climate change, and conflict.

Two years ago, the European Union together with the United Nations launched the innovative Spotlight Initiative. Spotlight aims to reduce inequalities through advocacy for women and girls’ inclusion in all spheres of society, using laws, policies and through public engagement. The initiative involves women’s organisations as agents of change to address gender-based discrimination, targeting specifically women facing multiple forms of discrimination.

As the High Representative, Frederica Mogherini, has said: “Spotlight is for all of us, women and men.” “It is about respect, human rights and also peace and security because a society cannot be defined as peaceful and secure if it is not peaceful and secure for all.” The European Union has committed an initial seed funding of €500 million to the Spotlight Initiative and two years after its launch, the Spotlight Initiative’s activities are now spanning the entire globe – thanks not only to the EU’s and UN’s engagement, but also to the support of partner governments and civil society at all levels. 13 countries have already started implementing Spotlight programmes and regional programmes are under discussion.

Spotlight examples include more than 2,500 young people in Buenos Aires who have benefited from a programme that teaches young boys and girls about online sexual abuse and violence. Through role-playing, and peer-to-peer exercises, participants learned about the effects and consequences of cyberbullying, sexting, online harassment and grooming. In Liberia as a result of advocacy and sensitization efforts at the highest levels of government – accelerated through the launch of Spotlight Initiative – a Domestic Violence Bill has been passed by the legislature.

Yet as I mentioned at the outset, there is still much to do to address the evil of sexual violence. Gender discrimination, unequal policies and stereotypes about how men and women should behave in society still have a stronghold across the world.

Rape and sexual abuse are horrendous and life-changing. As Dr. Mukwege has said, “we can’t just treat the finger or the ear; we have to see the person as an entire whole.” That is what you do in the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. The work that you do on a daily basis is truly inspiring. Over the last 40 years, your empathy and valuable expertise has helped thousands of victims of rape and sexual abuse take those first crucial steps to healing and recovery.

I would like to thank Ann-Marie Gill and Noeline Blackwell and all the staff of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre for your compassion, courage and commitment. This is a critical moment for sexual violence prevention. Times are clearly changing. More brave survivors are feeling emboldened to come forward and tell their stories. Many now realise that sexual violence is never cultural; it is always criminal.

40 years ago, the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre was established to address a need in Ireland.   Today that need remains, as rape and sexual violence remain a global pandemic.   Through its invaluable work, the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre serves as a model of how to prevent harm and heal trauma. My warm congratulations on an incredible 40 years and my very best wishes for the future work of this Centre.