Marking a milestone: 40 years of Sexual Violence Centre in Cork

Tonight a reception will be held to mark the 40th anniversary of the Sexual Violence Centre in Cork, writes Colette Sheridan
Marking a milestone: 40 years of Sexual Violence Centre in Cork

Mary Crilly, Director, Sexual Violence Centre, 5, Camden Place, Cork. FREEFONE 1800 496 496. Twitter @SVCCork Instagram sexualviolencecork Pic: Larry Cummins

IN an ideal world, we wouldn’t need the Sexual Violence Centre Cork (SVCC), and there wouldn’t be much point in celebrating International Women’s Day (which falls today), because if women were really equal, we wouldn’t suffer abuse at the hands of men.

Not just sexual abuse, but also institutional discrimination, still an issue in some workplaces and in politics.

But we don’t live in a perfect world. However, what is encouraging is that society evolves, albeit often painfully slowly. You need to be a glass half-full person to remain hopeful.

When I chatted to CEO of the SVCC, Mary Crilly last week, in advance of tonight’s civic reception celebrating the 40th anniversary of the centre, she said the good news is that reports of sexual violence are on the rise.

Although that may sound like a negative, it actually represents progress. It means that the number of people who now have the courage to report sexual abuse is on the rise. The number of people sitting up and listening to traumatic sexual experiences is on the rise – and the number of people taking a stand for what is right is on the rise.

The SVCC, formerly called the Cork Rape Crisis Centre until the founders wanted to acknowledge all kinds of sexual violence – including sexual violence against men – has come a long way.

When Dubliner Mary, now an honorary Cork woman (who was given the Freedom of the City last year) started out helping women who’d had been raped or sexually assaulted, the centre was only advertised on leaflets with a box number printed on them. The idea was to keep it quiet, almost invisible, because of the shame associated with sexual violence.

The centre’s initial premises was above a taxi company on MacCurtain Street. “You had to look for us to find us,” says Mary.

Local journalist Maureen Fox wrote articles about the centre.

“But I think the culture back then was to keep it quiet and not say too much or you’d make it more difficult for somebody to approach us.”

Now, the SVCC is prominent on Camden Quay in a large building that Mary came across in 1995, a building that was in a derelict state until renovation – on very limited funds – was carried out.

It wasn’t easy starting out, recalls Mary. She encountered a lot of opposition, with people saying “you’re going to be too visible”.

She remembers being told by a high-ranking garda to basically close shop because they weren’t wanted.

“And now,” adds Mary, “the recently retired chief superintendent Barry McPolin is on our board. And the Garda choir will sing at the civic reception.”

Mary says that until we look at rape and sexual assault in black and white terms, that grey area that exists will continue to make it difficult to discuss and highlight sexual violence. It sometimes excuses men, supposedly of otherwise ‘good character,’ of a crime.

In terms of goals, Mary would like to see the elimination of sexual violence in society. When pressed, she concedes that may not happen, but stresses that if “a dent is made in victim blaming, it would be progress.”

The 68-year-old says that if she was to come back in 40 years’ time to a world in which victims of sexual violence didn’t feel it was their fault, she could breathe a sigh of relief. In the meantime, there needs to be a change in the culture around sexual assault.

While Mary admits experiencing feelings of disillusionment, wondering “what’s the point when you come across sex trafficking and gender-based violence,” she somehow finds the strength to keep going.

She says that people should realise that even talking about the issue makes a difference.

“It’s not like you have to make massive differences every day. Even by acknowledging that sexual violence happened, believing the person and challenging anyone who calls somebody a slag or jokes about rape, makes a difference.

“The person will think twice the next time.”

But teenage boys and men are not yet calling out their peers in any significant way for perpetrating sexual assaults. That will take a change of mindset and courage to say the awkward thing.

Mary believes discussions about consent should start at primary school. Of course, she is not talking about sexual consent, but rather, understanding boundaries and not taking other children’s toys.

In primary schools in Norway (one of which is attended by Mary’s granddaughter), talks about consent and human rights that are understand by six and seven years olds take place. It normalises the idea of consent.

Mary, who retires in two years, is appealing for more funding from the department of justice. There are more imaginative campaigns to run.

Mary, an indefatigable activist, has more to do.

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