Sexual violence: A year of awful lows and heartening highs

A year of awful lows and heartening highs — that is how head of the Sexual Violence Centre Cork, Mary Crilly, has described 2018.
Sexual violence: A year of awful lows and heartening highs
Men and women gathered in solidarity with victims of sexual abuse and violence at Cork Courthouse. Pictured are Cllr Fiona Ryan of ROSA and Mary Crilly, Director, Sexual Violence Centre, Cork who spoke at the gathering.Picture; Larry Cummins

EVERY year, the 16 Days of Activism against Gender Based Violence event is a full-on time of action, within the Sexual Violence Centre Cork and without.

As it drew to a close earlier this month, our minds turned to the Christmas season and to how difficult a time that can be for so many people. It is a time when I also find myself looking back on the year that has been: 2018 has been a year of awful lows and heartening highs.

It was the year of the ‘Belfast Rape Case’, the ‘Me Too’ campaign, the referendum on the 8th amendment, the Bill Cosby conviction, the George Hook comments, the reaction to the Centre highlighting young girls being raped during Fresher’s Week. It was the year of the Tuam babies. It was another year of low conviction rates for sexual violence crimes and a year of no or low sentences handed down.

As I followed the ‘Belfast Rape Case’ and the more recent case in Cork which alluded to the underwear a young woman was wearing, I was aware that this happens all the time in court, the victim’s credibility is being questioned over and over again in various ways.

2018 was looking like another year, in a long history of years, where victims of sexual violence were too often blamed and shamed for the violence perpetrated on them.

But 2018 was not just about the low points, it was also about the high points. The high points are many and I believe they will have an enduring impact.

It was the year when the issue of consent was heard and debated and taught across third level colleges in Ireland. This was largely initiated by students themselves.

It was the year we saw a younger generation engaged and outraged and join us older activists, on the streets and on social media, calling for change, calling for justice.

There is nothing that gives me more hope and heart than engaging with young people and students. They are the ones that will make our country, our world, a fairer and more just place. They have taken up the gauntlet of sexual violence.

The Centre is bringing the ‘It Stops Now’ campaign to third level colleges. This is an EU-funded project led by The National Women’s Council and the Centre is on the advisory board. The aim is to combat and prevent sexual violence in third level colleges throughout Europe.

Students are also victims of sexual violence. According to a Union of Students in Ireland study, 1 in 12 female students are victims of rape or attempted rape. This has to change.

The conversations, the education and the attitude changes needed, must start in second level education. It must start at primary level education.

The ‘Me Too’ campaign allowed more and more victims to speak out and break the silence. The silence will never be as silent again. The reality of sexual violence will not go back to being an underground of individually buried secrets.

Collectively, we are to blame for allowing it to persist, for turning a blind eye, for blaming victims, for denying. Collectively, we must change our culture and institutions, to prevent it and to give justice and help to those who have been abused.

Worldwide, one in five females will be raped or sexually assaulted in their lifetime. One in five girls and one in seven boys are abused as children in Ireland.

Recent revelations about alleged abuse within Scouting Ireland and its failure to act, are an indication of our failures in this country and the changes we need to make.

In June, Louise O Neill’s play Asking for It played to full houses in Cork and later in Dublin. Would that have happened three or four years ago ? I don’t think so. The conversation has started. The outrage has started. People are saying ‘No’. Young and old are saying ‘no more’.

Change is happening. From the low points, hope is emerging. This is my high point of 2018. When I lose sight of this, as I sometimes do, I think again of the students and young people I meet every year. They give me hope. They keep me going. They tell me that the future can be better than the present and the past.

The year 2018 has also been a rollercoaster on a personal level. A diagnosis of bowel cancer was followed by an operation and then chemotherapy. This month I face another operation.

I plan to be fighting fit for 2019. I plan to continue to fight the fight against sexual violence. And I hope that you, the readers, will join me in this.

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