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Archive for the ‘Crime’ Category

Four weeks ago today, as a sunny Sunday came to a close, I sat in the restaurant of a hotel in Clare. Perched on a clifftop, the view was of huge Atlantic waves crashing on the beach, the surfers long gone as the last light drained from the sky. My husband was putting our children to bed in a family room two floors up. Our two-day break was nearly over. I say break, but as any parent with small children will tell you, ‘break’ is the most ill-conceived description of a holiday with young kids. Tons of fun, yes. A relaxing rest, no. After adventure parks and bouncy castles, beach strolls and round towers (where I managed to convince my son that Rapunzel lived), we decided to grab an hour or two to ourselves for dinner. The babysitter was booked, I ordered our main courses and although the view bordered on romantic cliché, it was insanely pretty. The minutes ticked by, other diners looked at me sympathetically. My wedding ring and the book of short stories I was reading did nothing to dispel she’s-been-stood-up glances of pity. I texted my husband. My normally well-behaved children, bitten by the holiday hyperactivity bug, were having none of it. After milk, umpteen stories and back-rubs, there was outright mutiny. Sleep? No way!

Kate and Gerry McCann

I mentally cancelled the crème brûlée I had seen on another diner’s table. After nearly an hour of wrangling, my husband gave up and sent the babysitter away. The kindly restaurant manager offered to send our food up to our room. My heart sank. I adore my children, and I thought of their impish faces as I wearily pushed the button for the lift – but everyone needs time out. At the time, I didn’t think of Kate and Gerry McCann. A harried doctor couple with three kids under four (including daughter Madeleine) attempting a family holiday, while stealing time for themselves; for the couple they were before they had children. I didn’t think of them, because at no point did my husband or I – as good as the view looked and the steak smelled – suggest to each other that we leave our children in the room alone. The McCanns stayed in an apartment a short distance (but completely separate from) the Tapas bar  where they spent that fateful night. Our room was two floors up in the same building, with key card access, 30 seconds from the restaurant, but still the thought was not there. It wasn’t even that it was unuttered – it never entered our collective brains to begin with. Watching the McCanns being interviewed on The Late Late Show recently, I had a flashback to that Clare hotel. How could they have left their children alone?

It’s a question that every armchair critic and news corporation has been demanding of Kate and Gerry McCann. It’s probably the one they ask themselves every night as they go to bed without their daughter.  On the last night of their stay in Portugal, they did what they had done every other night. They gambled. They made what they thought (must have thought, as I still don’t understand their rationale) what seemed like an innocuous choice. Food and drinks with friends versus leaving their young children untended. Not only was their decision as catastrophic as it gets, it has made them parental pariahs accused of everything from wife-swapping to sedating their child and much worse. They told Ryan Tubridy the story they’ve told a thousand times to Spanish police, to newspapers, to everyone they know. Clearly, it never gets easier. Kate’s face, as she talked of the horrific moment of realising her daughter was gone, was taut with pain. Online reactions to the interview were harsh. Too harsh. Because they have paid the ultimate price, and will have to live with unquantifiable levels of regret and guilt. I understand their lives were stressful, that they were tired parents, that they were eking out some downtime together in the evenings. That’s where I understand Kate and Gerry McCann. But that’s where my comprehension ends, because of the unfathomable decision they made that night.

In a Clare hotel, the food arrived to our room and we drank a glass of wine. My son and daughter wanted to taste the potatoes, in between bouncing on the beds and giggling. My heart nearly burst looking at them. Half an hour earlier, I could have screamed at them. Tired, I lay down and my daughter cuddled up beside me, her curls tickling my cheek. Her gorgeous face, all big-eyed and cheeky staring at me. Of all the memories we made that weekend, that was the one etched in my mind during the McCann’s interview, thankful that I can feel my daughter’s skin and smell her hair every day of my lucky life. And I feel nothing but pity for the McCanns because they cannot do the same thing.

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There’s a delightful video doing the rounds this last couple of weeks – a cover version of Chris Brown’s Look At Me Now by a band called Karmin, notable because Karmin singer Amy Heidemann does an amazing interpretation of bullet-rapping Busta Rhyme’s verses. I watched it, loved it, shared it with my friends. And as I was doing so, I thought, “Chris Brown, eh? He still has a career?”

Yes, as it happens. You might remember Chris Brown as the young man who battered (now ex) girlfriend Rihanna a couple of years ago. Due to the celebrity status of both the victim and the strutting arsehole who beat her up, it was an unfortunately public assault. Some argued that this was a good thing in that it raised awareness (amongst young people who up to then had thought that it was ok to beat up their partners? Dunno). The rest of us flinched at the leaked photographs of Rihanna’s injuries, wished that the press would leave her alone to come to terms with what had happened, and hoped that Mr. Brown soon entered the market for a large boulder he could wedge his bulk under.

And yet this hasn’t happened. Rihanna’s career has gone from strength to strength, and oddly enough, so has Brown’s. Not that I generally keep up to speed with hip-pop artists, but I don’t even recall there being much of a sabbatical. He’s as popular as ever with fans, and has no problem attracting other artists to work with on musical projects.

One might say that Brown is entitled to forgiveness and entitled to move on with his life and career. And indeed he is. But how could a fan bring themselves to support someone who severely assaulted his girlfriend and was never quite convincing in subsequent public apologies? Indeed, at the end of March he threw a dramatic hissy fit backstage at Good Morning America when quizzed about the assault, reportedly breaking a window, leaving the building in a shirtless huff(!) and tweeting afterwards, “I’m so over people bring this past s**t up!! Yet we praise Charlie Sheen and other celebs for there[sic] bulls**t.”

This may be the thing, though. Are the public “allowing” Brown a career because he’s such an entertaining little Veruca Salt?

Social media has made it possible for a celebrity to have virtual one-on-one relationships with his or her fans – Twitter, tumblr, whatever. A celeb now has the power to make connections with the wider world without the deft swipe of a publicist’s whitewash brush. Before, celebrities flourished in stone fortresses, pampered and bubble-wrapped and told marvellous tales about how their personas were received in the outside world. Nowadays it’s like the poor, narcissistic things are kept in Wicker Men in a madhouse garden. Should they wish to say something out-of-character (as in, not becoming of a public figure), it will be seized upon and flung halfway around the world well before their publicist’s spidey-sense gets going. And they may well wish to say something out-of-character, because the fans will lap it up and egg them on, rubbernecking on a delightfully careening ego.

Recently, we’ve seen Charlie Sheen, Mel Gibson, and Lindsay Lohan making headlines for pretty horrific behaviour; Charlie’s hired an entourage of porn stars to live with him, Mel admitted to domestic violence, and Lindsay practically lives in court these days.  Yet the public hasn’t denied them their celebrity status, or let them know that such behaviour is not socially acceptable. The public would rather Charlie and Mel and Lindsay kept making asses of themselves. Who wants to see Charlie get well? Who wants to see the erstwhile holier-than-thou Mel get his act together? Who wants to see Lindsay reinvent herself as an indie darling? No one. They’re far more valuable as clowns. No matter if Charlie keels over from an overdose or Mel breaks his girlfriend’s teeth or Lindsay dies in the gutter. Collateral damage.

Do we condone bad behaviour from celebrities simply because they’re celebrities? I don’t think it’s quite as simple as that, but the answer isn’t on par with rocket science, either. Celebrities who behave badly cannot presume that the public will remain empathic, forgiving – even interested. Celebrities who behave badly in a ridiculously over-the-top fashion can, though. We can be entertained as well as feel superior. Is this why Chris Brown still has a glittering pop career?

Or do we really think that battering women isn’t really that big a deal? Do we think that proud patronage of the sex trade isn’t really that big a deal? Do we think that a young woman drowning her talent in alcohol isn’t that big a deal?

[Of course, the other condition under which the general public will forgive a misbehaving celebrity is if that celebrity has a talent that is not interchangeable with a hundred other pretenders (as in Brown’s identipop career). I suppose Roman Polanski would be the prime example here. If he was not a brilliant storyteller and visionary, would we have forgiven him for raping a child?]

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Here’s a bizarre dichotomy to consider: corrective rape. Yes, raping a person to make them see the error of their ways. I wish I could tell you I’d made it up, but it seems it’s all the rage at home, in South Africa. Now take a moment to consider and remember the following women, all victims of corrective rape, all black, all young, all lesbians, all dead:

* Noxolo Nogwaza — raped, stabbed and stoned to death in an alleyway in Kwa-Thema, near

Eudy Simelane - murdered.

Johannesburg, in April, simply for being a lesbian. She was also a mother. Her eyes were pushed out of her skull, used condoms littered the scene, a paving stone lay near her crushed head, and there was a beer bottle against her vagina. She was 24. Her name means peace.

* Luleka Makiwane — contracted HIV when she was raped by a cousin hellbent on trying to “prove” she was a woman, not a man. Cock does that, you know, it sorts the women from the men. Luleka ultimately succumbed to Aids.

* Nosizwe Nomsa Bizana — gang-raped by five men, and now dead from crypto meningitis, believed to have been contracted during the attack, or possibly as a complication of the trauma she suffered.

* Nokuthula Radebe — strangled with her own shoelaces and found in an abandoned building with her pants pulled down and plastic covering her face, at the age of 20.

* Eudy Simelane — gang-raped, brutally beaten and stabbed to death at the age of 31 because she was a lesbian. Eudy was a talented footballer who had played for the acclaimed South African national women’s team. She worked with the handicapped and was an HIV/ Aids counsellor. Her naked body was found dumped in a ditch.

These are some of the 30-odd women known to have been murdered in my homeland in the last decade merely because of their sexual orientation. Countless more have been raped for being lesbians, a crime now dubbed “corrective rape” because the perpetrators seem to believe that a violent, demeaning shot from the old meat injection is all it will take to make lesbians see sense and realise that a penis is what they needed all along. This is precisely what happened to Millicent Gaika (pictured), a lesbian who was raped and beaten for five hours by a man she knew who said he was going to turn her into a woman.

Millicent Gaika after being repeatedly raped and beaten for five hours.

Yes, I know: it’s about as logical as suggesting a gang of gay thugs raping a straight bloke will change his sexual allegiance, but some people really are pig-ignorant, illogical and deluded, while bloated with dangerous machismo and immense hubris.

Stupidity and ego are a toxic combination. Some men think their love is all you need.

Let me get one thing straight though: on paper, South Africa is one of the most progressive places on the planet when it comes to gay rights. The country’s post-apartheid constitution was the first in the world to stipulate that nobody may be discriminated against due to sexual orientation, or gender or race for that matter. South Africa was the first country in notoriously homophobic Africa (where 37 countries outlaw homosexuality completely) and the fifth country in the whole world to legalise same-sex marriage. There’s none of that civil union lark. Lest the First World feel smug, please note that 42 Commonwealth countries still have homophobic legislation on their statute books.

Equally, South Africa was the first republic to provide non-heterosexual people with the same rights regarding adoption and military service as heterosexual folk. We’re very proud of our constitution. Well, some of us are.

In the thriving cities and metropolises, being gay is pretty much accepted, while there are Gay Pride parades, and there is a thriving gay scene.

Unfortunately, the law doesn’t always filter down to the boneheads on the street, to the cretins who see lesbianism as a direct affront to their manliness, an insult, a rejection of the lads, and something they must self-righteously fix with a brutal beating from their own beloved love truncheon. It’s a growing problem as the poison of homophobia seeps through the dust and the shantytowns.

Yes, rape as therapy.

Gay rights' protesters remember Eudy Simelane.

Countless women are raped each day because of their sexual orientation. One estimate based on calls to a Cape Town-based action group alone puts the figure at ten a week in that city’s informal sprawl. Last Thursday (5 May), a mere 13-year-old girl was raped in Pretoria’s Atteridgeville because she was open about fancying girls.

Yet, very obviously, rape is not a cure for anything at all, and being raped has never changed a person’s mind — except, perhaps, to confirm a woman’s suspicions that some men are barbaric and, in the case of gang-raped lesbians, to confirm that they were right all along.

Finally,  possibly ten years too late, the South African police are setting up a task-force to tackle the issue.

What is needed, however, is a complete change of mindset, a realisation that in every civilization since the beginning of time between three and ten percent of the population were gay. It’s seen in frescoes from Pompeii, in ancient Greek mythology, from Michelangelo to Marlene Dietrich, from Ottoman sultans to Oscar Wilde, from King Shaka to Billie Jean King… It’s frequently seen in the animal kingdom too. It was rife and widely accepted in Africa before the missionaries came.

And why should anyone care what another adult does with their own genitalia anyway? What goes on between consenting adults is nobody else’s business at all. Not that any of this is consolation to the families, friends and lovers of all the victims of corrective rape, or any salve to the jagged memory of Luleka, Nosizwe, Nokuthula, Eudy and Noxolo, whose name means peace…

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THE four-letter word I most dislike begins with a ‘C’. We’ve already had that debate on this blog.

But the most abused and misused four-letter word I can think of is ‘rape’. There was a time, not too long ago, where it wasn’t considered polite to mention rape in conversation. Too raw, too politically-charged, too obscene, ‘dirty’.

The first time I realised that rape was not to be addressed with the ‘r’ word was while watching – forgive me – Home and Away. Carly, stumbling home to the caravan park, clothes torn and in tears, having been raped while out hitch-hiking. Not once in the weeks of soap drama that followed, not once during the ministrations of Tom and Pippa, the discussion among her friends, the investigation by the police, was the word rape used.

Carly was “attacked”. It wasn’t that the effects of rape were not tackled – so why was the word itself considered too profane for the largely teenage audience watching the show?

I don’t think that’s the case now, and well it shouldn’t be. This country is coming down with men, women and children who have been raped and sexually abused. (The Rape Crisis Centre went so far as to use the word “endemic” last year about rape and child sexual abuse in particular here. While their figures can’t be definitive – they can obviously only record the experiences of those people who actually contact their services – they are no less a national disgrace for that.) The very least they should be afforded is the right to use the correct, criminal term, loudly and publicly, for what has happened to them.

Today though we’re looking at transcripts of gardai “joking” about how two women arrested on public order offences in relation to the Corrib pipeline protests should be told to give their names and addresses or be raped.

I read a comment online this morning that people are taking the “banter” between a couple of unidentified yahoos from Templemore a bit too seriously.

Let’s just leave that stand and ferment there, shall we?

Is ‘to rape’ now an acceptable verb through which to express one’s annoyance? Are you having a laugh?

We know the word still carries a powerful impact. The seriousness with which the courts treat cases of, thankfully rare, false allegations of rape indicates that this is not a word to be bandied about. And rightly so. But if the courts recognise that it’s a criminal offence to falsely accuse someone of rape, how is it not clear to everyone that the effect of the word in the converse situation is similarly an act of aggression and an outrage?

What’s in a word? Ask the women of Toronto who took part in a “Slut Walk” on Sunday to protest against a police officer’s comment that women are putting themselves at risk of rape by dressing like “sluts”. Ah, that old sane, rational, women-are-the-problem argument again.

So the women who took offence put on their fishnet stockings, stilettos and the most revealing clothes to march and chant:

Whatever we wear, wherever we go, yes means yes, and no means no.

They wouldn’t “let it go”. I don’t think we should let this one go either.

NOTE FROM THE EDITORS

As last week’s rape post showed, people have understandably strong feelings on this issue. This comment thread is purely to discuss the the casual use of the word rape in the context of the Corrib gardaí case and the implications of this case, such as whether we can trust gardaí who talk about rape in that way to take actual rape cases seriously, or whether an investigation into garda conduct can be properly carried out by fellow gardaí. Any reference to last week’s discussion of rape will not be approved. Nor will personal attacks, assumptions about other posters, or attempts to hijack the thread and devote it to other vaguely-rape-related issues. This is NOT a thread about false accusations of rape or their implications. And if you want to talk about how the Corrib gardaí were just having a laugh, there are plenty of other online spaces where you can do so. We reserve the right to not approve any or all comments.

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A few years ago a good friend of mine talked me out of my customary sloth and into agreeing to run the mini marathon with her.  Seems a work colleague of hers was involved with a charity called Ruhama and was keen to raise much needed funds. I’d never heard of them but agreed to participate more for the laugh and the much needed exercise than for the worthiness of the cause. As it happens the cause is worthy in the extreme.

Along with tens of thousands of other women a small group of us donned the tee-shirts and took to the streets to raise what money we could whilst enjoying a really great day out. Later, as we rewarded ourselves with chilled white wine and barbequed food in Lynn’s back garden she chatted about her involvement as a volunteer with Ruhama (Hebrew for renewed life) and the practical, no-nonsense and dignified approach that this non-judgemental organisation takes to supporting women affected by prostitution and human trafficking in Ireland.

Lynn regularly volunteers with the Ruhama outreach service operating in Dublin city centre and the Dochas Centre and providing a safe haven for women working on the streets. A small group of women volunteers travel by dedicated bus offering their clients respect, cups of tea, advice and practical follow-up support. She herself has taken bewildered young Eastern European girls into her own home, providing them with shelter and safety as they tried to break free from the horrible, sinister situation they found themselves in whilst alone, far from home and often unable to speak English.

Although established in 1989 as a joint initiative of the Good Shepherd Sisters and Our Lady of Charity Sisters (and I must admit that as a committed secularist I am deeply suspicious of and resistant to all things religious) the organisation appears to be not in any way proselytising in nature and in fact may well embody all that is good and laudable about a Christian ethos. As such it is a welcome antidote to the repugnant underbelly of organised religion that has been exposed here in recent years.

Taking the stance that prostitution and the social and cultural attitudes which sustain it are deeply rooted in gender inequality and social marginalisation, Ruhama unequivocally affirms that prostitution represents violence against women and a violation of human rights. On a macro level the organisation engages in vital advocacy work directed at legislators and brokers of change and also liaises with the various drug and housing services that their clients will come in contact with as they move towards a safe and stable life.

On an individual level the approach is more nuanced. Ruhama engages in befriending women involved in prostitution and supporting them practically and emotionally as they attempt to move on and reintegrate successfully and happily into mainstream society. Treating women with dignity and working with them in a way that best suits their personal circumstances is a core principle. For example Ruhama volunteers will often accompany their clients through our intimidating and adversarial courts system; offering them legal advice, friendship and solidarity as required.

Education is a cornerstone of their vital work and Ruhama offers classes ranging from basic literacy and English to financial support for those participating in third level education. Holistic therapies afforded to women including art therapy, stress management and relaxation.

In recent years this organisation has had to adapt to the changing nature of prostitution in Ireland, most notably the increase in the number of migrant women, most of them trafficked into prostitution. When my husband, inspired by my stroll around town, ran the marathon for Ruhama in 2005 he raised €2000 and received a lovely letter telling him that he had paid the bill for their vital interpreter services for that year. How wonderful to know that you have made a real, tangible difference to the betterment of people’s lives!

The roll-the-sleeves-up-and-get-stuck-in approach adopted by this organisation has impressed me greatly ever since I first encountered them almost a decade ago. However, they still have the capacity to stop me in my tracks. Just when I thought that they were doing all that is imaginably possible to help women caught in the mire of prostitution, including shaping government policy, they surprise me yet again.

“5th Year boys from Belvedere College visited Ruhama today. Great to see the men of the future interested in combating the sex trade”

Last week I received a tweet from @RuhamaAgency (I urge you all to follow them) outlining a new and incredibly laudable initiative. It read “5th Year boys from Belvedere College visited Ruhama today. Great to see the men of the future interested in combating the sex trade”. This represents yet another forward-thinking and utterly practical policy. In my experience the vast majority of young (and not so young) men are incredibly respectful towards women and have a strong sense of the injustice of discrimination. Helping women find their way out of prostitution in no way represents a battle of the sexes. More fundamentally it is a battle of the right thinking against those who would profit from the misery of others.

So if you’re looking for a cause to fund or even one to rally behind then don’t forget Ruhama. Every cent raised will be efficiantly and effectively used for the betterment of the lives of women who really need our help.

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The sentencing last week of Stephen “Rossi” Walsh for the sexual assault of a seven-year-old girl some 20 years ago is simply one of the dozens of crimes against women that pass through the Central Criminal Court each year.

62-year-old Dubliner, Walsh hit the headlines because of his long and glittering career as a criminal and arsonist.  This week, the papers pointed out that this was the man who won prisoners the right to vote from jail, picking over the juicy details of a long and varied career as a manipulative thug.  He received 15 years in 1993 for torching a pub but this week he received a mere three for simulating sex on a little girl.  During the trial last month, he actually handled the cross-examination of his victim himself, asking her why it had taken her so long to come forward.

He’s already serving a 10-year sentence for the rape of a 9-year-old girl in the 1990s.

His case makes me angry, but sadly it’s not particularly unusual.  Every day the Central Criminal Court deals with similar trials.  Working there, you see a constant procession of crimes against women – murder, rape, abuse.  The official figures might show a drop in rape trials passing through the courts, but it’s hard to see that on the ground.  In the court list for this Monday – which includes both trials due to start and cases that have not yet come to trial but need to be raised before the judge for any number of reasons – nine out of 12 cases are crimes against women.

Most of these cases will not be reported.  Rapes do not make headline-grabbing copy.  Both accused and alleged victim have the right to anonymity until a verdict, so any reports must take care not to identify either.  In practice, this means being vague about locations and using a lot of pronouns.  When the case is one of incest, then the accused cannot be identified even after conviction, for the sake of his victims. This is only right, but as a journalist I can see the value in naming and shaming.  I genuinely think that the public has a right to see the faces of these dangerous men and to see what they are capable of.

I can understand the view of victims who want to move on with their lives and would like to forget what happened to them; who would rather the case sank into obscurity.  The French student viciously raped by murderer Gerald Barry made a strong case in her victim impact statement against the media coverage her case would receive.  But less than two months after he had raped her, Barry had gone on to kill, and possibly also sexually assault, Swiss language student Manuela Riedo.  The likes of Gerald Barry and Larry Murphy may generate hysterical headlines but there are other cases that can never be reported.  Men just as vicious, just as brutal, just as manipulative and dangerous, who will never be known.

Covering the Central Criminal Court, you see the shattered lives of numerous women.  The childhoods crushed and blighted, the fumbling, terrifying attacks, false imprisonment, manipulation,  men who think of women as a lesser species.  In the worst cases we hear of lives snuffed out. Husbands unable to deal with the breakdown of a relationship or unable to cope with a strong woman as a wife after a coddled youth.  Men unable to let go.  Even when it’s a woman in the dock, the story is often of a wife striking out after years of abuse.  The courts give you an in-depth view of the darker side of the relationships and a real sense of how much further there is to go for women in this country.

When sentences for rape are generally less than a decade and abuse cases usually end with sentences of less than half that, it’s no wonder violence against women doesn’t show any real sign of letting up.  According to the Rape Crisis Centre, a tiny proportion of rapes ever make it to court and it’s not hard to see why.  Stephen Walsh’s questioning of his victim was unusual, but there would be nothing to stop it happening again.  Until the moment the accused is convicted, he is an innocent man in the eyes of the law and perfectly entitled to act in his own defence.

As we’ve seen in the case of Dan Foley from Listowel, who had his hand shaken by dozens of men as he awaited a sentence for the rape of a local woman, even public attitudes can be shockingly biased against the victim. It takes a very brave woman to take the stand in a rape case, but thank goodness some do.

When their attacker is subsequently handed a sentence less than five years, few women feel it’s worth all the pain.  Stephen Walsh got 15 years for arson, for destroying the bricks and mortar of a pub.  For destroying the childhoods of his two victims he got a total of 13 years.  Drug offences can carry a minimum sentence of 15 years, but rape can result in a suspended sentence. Judges here cannot even opt to run sentences consecutively if they relate to the same series of charges.  The maximum the convicted man will serve is the longest sentence handed down.  Then every prisoner in an Irish jail has an automatic right to a quarter off their sentence.  A carrot to ensure good behaviour in jail, but surely not one that’s appropriate in every case.  When he was sentencing Gerald Barry, Mr. Justice Paul Carney pointed out that there are some who do not deserve  this light at the end of the tunnel, but he was not in a position to do anything about it.

Judges often make comments about the lengths of sentences they are permitted to impose, but nothing ever seems to change.  Until the Government introduces a sentencing structure for sex crimes that is a proper deterrent, it’s unlikely things will improve.  There are more  female barristers graduating every year and the media based full-time in the courts are predominately women.  It’s a shame that the system doesn’t show equal evolution and start treating crimes against women as seriously as they should be treated.  Surely we’ve come that far?

 

Abigail Riley is an author and journalist specialising in the courts.  She tweets as @abigailrieley and blogs at www.abigailrieley.com when she’s not writing for the Sunday Independent and other papers.  She’s currently working on her third book.

 

 

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“It is now more dangerous to be a woman than to be a soldier in modern conflict.” Major General Patrick Cammaert, former UN Peacekeeping Operation Commander in DRC.

Margot Wallström, Mary Robinson & Colm O'Gorman at the Royal Irish Academy Yesterday

Yesterday, during a briefing organised by the Joint Consortium on Gender Based Violence, a characteristically calm and measured Mary Robinson spoke movingly of a recent visit to Eastern Chad. She had travelled there with a group of woman leaders specifically to meet with women who had fled the conflict in neighbouring Darfur and to hear from an NGO undertaking trauma counselling with them. All of the women had horrific stories to tell. Mrs. Robinson described the experiences of one in particular whose village was “attacked by men on horseback and planes from the sky”. Without hesitating this woman grabbed her twin babies and ran as far and as fast as she could. Leaving her babies under a tree, she returned to find that her husband had been murdered and her daughter raped. She herself was brutally gang raped on her return. Showing incredible fortitude this woman crawled back to rescue her babies and took them to safety over the border.

Enraged by this, one delegate challenged the NGO to collate this evidence to build a criminal case against the perpetrators and hold them accountable. This would prevent further horrors. The NGOs response was that their funding had been cut to such an extent that this was simply not possible. Mary Robinson and many others are convinced that holding perpetrators accountable for such actions is far more affective in addressing and eradicating gender based violence in conflict than simply fire-fighting and living with the consequences of shattered societies.

According to the Irish Joint Consortium on Gender based Violence, up to 90% of causalities in contemporary conflict are civilians, most of them women and children. Violence against them is often sexualised.  Peace brings scant relief. Crime rates and violence against women and girls soars after war as returning combatants inflict their trauma and frustration on them.  In the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, it is estimated by the UN that over 200,000 women have been raped since the beginning of the war.

Dr. Thelma Awori

Dr. Thelma Awori is a consultant on gender and development and a board member of a number of prominent African civil society organizations. She says, “Women continue to pay a heavy price in both conflicts and post-conflict situations around the world. Too many women have become shocking statistics of one horror or another, be it rape in Eastern Congo; acid thrown in the faces of girls walking to school in Afghanistan; impunity for crimes against women in conflict-affected countries. When women stand up and make their voices heard in peace negotiations and post-conflict reconciliation they often face security risks, they are denied seats at the table, and are excluded from planning and resources that determine their futures.”

Women, so often the victims of conflict, have little input into its resolution. One in forty peace negotiations have a woman present and, according to www.unifem.org, just 2.5% of signatories to peace agreements have been women. Although many post-conflict countries now have much improved female representation in government, unequal participation in parliament, civil society and business means that women’s voices are largely absent.

After listening to the experiences and perspectives of women from conflict zones, the UN unanimously adopted Security Council Resolution 1325 in October 2000. This resolution addresses the disproportionate and unique impact of armed conflict on women and recognizes that the contribution women make to conflict prevention, peacekeeping, conflict resolution and peace-building is significantly undervalued. The UN has called for equal and full participation from women as active agents in achieving peace and security and has officially endorsed the active participation of civil society groups, in particular woman’s organizations, in peace processes and peace talks. A key element is the call for an end to impunity in relation to conflict-related violence against women.

All nation states, including Ireland, whether they are affected by conflict or attempting to resolve it, must now implement the resolution and are legally obliged to take responsibility in four key areas in relation to women, peace and security.

  1. The protection of women and girls during conflict
  2. The participation of women in decision making in relation to prevention, management and resolution of conflict.
  3. The inclusion of gender perspectives in conflict analysis and training of military and civilian personnel in peacekeeping. (Women account for just 5.7% of the Irish permanent defence forces and just 2.5% of peacekeepers serving in conflict regions worldwide are women according to the UN. Yet, these women perform a vital role in winning the trust of local civilian women who are more likely to report gender based violence to them)
  4. Gender mainstreaming in the UN implementation of UNSCR 1325 and related resolutions 1820, 1888 and 1889

A high level task force of UN heads of agencies is progressing the implementation of resolution 1325 along with the Civil Society Advisory Group, co-chaired by Mary Robinson, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and President of Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative and Bineta Drop, Executive Director, Femmes Africa Solidarité.

Mary Robinson was in Dublin in her role as special advisor to the Joint Consortium on Gender Based Violence. The consortium is comprised of 16 bodies, including human rights, humanitarian and development organisations, together with Irish Aid and the Defence Forces and is charged with formulating Ireland’s implementation plan (due by March 2011). In the midst of our deepening crisis it may seem that Ireland has little to offer the rest of the world in any respect. Yet there are areas in which we are still well regarded and one of these is conflict resolution. Ireland has a role to play in a wider EU context as one of a handful of countries developing an implementation plan.

As a northern European nation with a recent history of conflict, a close connection with NGOs operating in the worst conflict zones and a respected peace-keeping role we are uniquely placed to help rebuild some of the most damaged societies on the planet. The focus in achieving this has now been place firmly on the experience and role of women in the process. Joint Consortium Chairperson and Executive Director of Amnesty International Ireland, Colm O’ Gorman, is certain that “Ireland can play a key role in working to eliminate gender-based violence”. Our plan will be the result of a long, complex and “unique globally” process requiring “civil society and the state to work together.” The final stage involves consultations with women living in Ireland who have been affected by conflict and whose experiences and opinions will feed into our final plan.

The Irish plan is not being developed in isolation. We have a unique opportunity to learn from the experiences of others and avoid the pitfall of implementation deficit disorder. Mary Robinson believes that, “Ireland is well positioned to prepare an exemplary plan”. We are in a position to draw on our recent experience of conflict on the island of Ireland.  But, in addition, there is now a strong working relationship between a number of government departments and NGOs on the issue of gender-based violence.  This can be leveraged to produce a strong and effective plan that protects women in conflict and gives them a meaningful role in conflict resolution”, she adds. A strong plan alone is not sufficient. Colm O’Gorman stresses the importance of incorporating an effective mechanism for monitoring and evaluation into the process.

Sitting alongside Mary Robinson yesterday was Margot Wallström, UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict. She spoke of the role of Resolution 1325 in “establishing a context to put women into the picture for peace and security issues” and views the initiative as an integral part of a wider plan to tackle sexual violence. The adoption of the resolution amounts to a clear admission that not enough was being done to eradicate what is still “a tactic in most areas of conflict”. Margot Wallström stresses that, “this is not a women’s issue rather a security and human rights issue and one relevant to wider society”. She believes that, “It is vitally important that Ireland gets its plan right.  Having a plan would greatly bolster Ireland’s human rights record and, by involving the widest range of stakeholders and putting in place strong monitoring, the plan would be very significant in advancing the protection of women in conflict.”

The five point agenda adopted by the UN in this respect and reflected in any plan focuses on: fighting impunity; empowering and supporting women to move from being victims to becoming agents for change; mobilising leaders; deepening our knowledge of the incidence and effects of sexual violence in conflict; and co-ordinating and harmonising UN efforts to tackle and prevent such actions. Mary Robinson wants to see the Security Council “use all of the tools available to it – naming & shaming, freezing assets, sanctions, visa bans – to implement policy”.

This is a two-way process and Ireland can benefit hugely from participation. As Colm O’Gorman eloquently puts it, “Ireland is very progressive when we are out in the wider world. What is it that stops us translating those values back into our own society?” Mary Robinson emphasises the importance of treating our involvement as a “cross-learning process”. Ireland has already participated in a ground-breaking cross learning initiative on women, peace and security with representatives from Liberia and Timor-Leste, chaired by Baroness Nuala O’Loan, first Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf - President of Liberia

Ireland should look to Liberia and other African nations such as Rwanda when it comes to gender representation in government too. Mary Robinson passionately describes a meeting in the Angie Brooks centre in Liberia where she witnessed “the expectant enthusiastic faces of young women who wanted desperately to be involved in the political process”. Their participation makes a difference. Liberian president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has pledged to tackle the scourge of rape using new legislation that came into force the day after her inauguration in 2006. “I know of the struggle because I have been a part of it,” she said. “I recall the inhumanity of confinement, the terror of attempted rape.”

Little value is placed on women in many conflict and post-conflict zones. Rape and sexual violence are often treated as the lowest crime on a scale of war horrors that puts death and torture at the top. There is no link made between the perpetration of these acts and the way in which they impede the building of a working, healthy society. Any economic consequences are disregarded. When soldiers in DRC were asked what they felt the cost of raping a woman was they answered perhaps the loss of a goat or a few days in prison. For this reason Margot Wallström is keen to measure the economic impact of intergenerational rape and sexual violence. Women, often the backbone of an economy, become totally depressed and are impeded from assuming their traditional coping role. Peacekeepers are now advised to assume rape and be watchful for the early warning signals. Although prepared to report the rape of children, many women are still too ashamed or disillusioned to report their own experiences. Resources can also be thin on the ground. Liberia has asked for help in developing an anti-rape campaign. Finally, attitudes have to change. In the past “enticement” was too often considered a legitimate defence.

This shift in focus has already produced results and Margot Wallström attributes the arrests of a number of players on charges of perpetrating and facilitating such crimes to the implementation of UNSCR 1325 and related resolutions. Change is essential. Dr Thelma Awori is adamant that “communities rebuilding after conflict cannot afford to omit more than 50% of their population in these efforts. To do so would mean institutionalizing inequality and that is a recipe for further conflict and instability.” There is still a long road to travel but by developing and implementing a strong, workable and measurable plan Ireland has an opportunity to help create a better and fairer world.

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