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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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The ECHR judgement that Anthea McTiernan wrote about so eloquently yesterday has highlighted the journeys made every year by Irish women seeking abortions in the UK. Here one of those women, Molly McCarthy, tells her story.

It’s with great joy I hear of the ECHR finding that the courts were not the appropriate place to determine the course of a woman’s life. I’m sure as I type various groups are scrambling to decry the imposition of Europe in our ‘private’ Irish affairs, for abortion is something we cant talk about, for fear of judgment, judgment of those who never had to look at that option.

I made friends with a neigbour in an apartment complex when both our children were very young, at some stage she fell pregnant by her partner and decided that she couldn’t cope with another kid. She made the decision to terminate the pregnancy and to my current shame I let the friendship drift, I couldn’t reconcile the act with my supposed morals.

Less than 12 months later I was pregnant from a one night stand, she had moved away and I had to take stock and decided that two  children under four on my own would not only destroy me, it would hurt my child, my family and any prospects I had of rebuilding my life to provide for my son.

I had been pregnant already in less than perfect circumstances. I had intended to give the baby up for adoption, the guilt at the prospect of not being able to provide everything for my child was so great I was willing to part with him. As time progressed I felt different, I had to come clean and tell my parents, albeit at 8 months the shock of revelation is still a sore point to this day. His father was a lovely guy that slept on the floor of the hospital for 3 days as we couldn’t afford anything else, hardly the luxurious welcome I wanted for a new baby, but we survived. I nursed him and held him and was more in love with this child than I thought possible. I still am. His dad died suddenly when he was 18 months old, I fell apart, the boy was the only source of happiness, my rock, I lived for him, for I did not feel like I was worth living for any more.

Deciding to have an abortion less than a year after my partner’s death was the only logical step, I could not mentally, financially or physically take the strain of another baby. My G.P. counseled me against it, would not support my decision or help me get information. My stubborn streak kicked in and all of my Catholic school brainwashing was abandoned. Because an abortion is a personal decision, it’s something you can only truly understand and know about if you are in that situation. I’m not a ‘hard’ person, I don’t hate life, I love it, but I needed to look after MY life there and then.

Less than a week later I dropped the boy at a friend’s house, drove to Dublin, got a flight to Liverpool and had a procedure. I was 9 weeks pregnant that morning, that night I returned home happy. Happy seems an odd word to use here, but I was, walking out of the clinic, staffed by Irish nurses, full of Irish girls in similar situations, I felt that I had started to do things for myself, that I had looked after myself instead of somebody else for the first time in a long time. I do not now nor have I ever regretted what I did that day. I would help and support any woman to do the same.

I begged and borrowed to travel quickly, my sympathies are now firmly aligned with girls who cannot afford such a luxury. I could not imagine the pain of having to continue a pregnancy any longer than necessary for anyone who is sure they can’t continue it, the additive costs of flights, transport, fees as well as accommodation for some people is not within reach. We have abortion in Ireland, we just happen to do it next door. Abortion is something you can only understand when you are faced with a pregnancy and have no other choices, I had been there and bought the t-shirt as far as ‘other options’ go. My abortion is not something I talk about, which seems to be the code amongst women who do not regret it. All one hears is the horror stories, full of regret and pain and morality warnings, I have none of those, I skipped into John Lennon Airport that evening.

Perhaps if everyone could recount their abortion tales we would have a little more balance to the pro/anti choice debates, perhaps a bit more compassion and understanding, and I’d probably have another friend.

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The figures aren’t in yet for 2010, but in 2009 we welcomed a whole heap of little girls to Ireland. Sophie, Ava, Emma, Sarah, Grace, Emily, Katie, Lucy, Aoife and Chloe – welcome! You are the proud owners of the top 10 girls’ names in the State.
They are beautiful names. We hope you get to keep them.
We hope you get to grow up in a State that vindicates your human rights, Sophie. We hope you keep your good name, Ava. We hope your name is respected, Emma. We hope that it isn’t taken from you, Grace, as we manhandle you, small and scared and 14, through a legal system that strips you of your privacy and dignity. A system that replaces your beautiful name with a single letter.

The European Court of Human Rights

In 1992 we took another 14-year-old girl’s name from her and replaced it with a single letter, X. She had a beautiful name too. She had been raped. She had been made pregnant. She had decided to terminate her unwanted pregnancy.
She couldn’t do it here, of course. We have no truck with girls with letters for names whose experiences cause us to shudder. We are not comfortable with such discomfort. It is not for us.
X went to England.
Her parents supported her decision, but we did not. The Attorney General, who upholds the laws of our land, sought and got an order from the High Court stopping the nameless Ms X from leaving Ireland for nine months. She came back from England with her mum and her dad to contest the order. More time passed. We piled more pressure on the head of the 14-year-old we had stripped of a name. She had been raped. We had no shame.
She could take no more, the nameless 14-year-old. She wanted it all to stop. She was suicidal.
On appeal, the Supreme Court ruled that “if it is established that there is a real and substantial risk to the life, as distinct from the health, of the mother, which can only be avoided by the termination of her pregnancy, such termination is permissible”.
She remains Ms X to this day, but she is part of a chain of amazing women with letters for their names whose bravery and dignity will make a difference.
In 1997, we supplied another link in the chain of suffering. Another 13-year-old girl was raped and impregnated. She was in the care of the Eastern Health Board. She was in the care of the State. She was all our responsibility. She had no need for a name, so we called her C.
The EHB goes to the District Court to apply to take C abroad for an abortion. C’s parents challenge these orders in the High Court. The High Court rules that as C is liable to take her own life if forced to continue with the pregnancy, she is entitled to an abortion in Ireland by virtue of the Supreme Court judgment in the 1992 X case.
C still has to go to England.
Five years later, in 2002 Irish voters reject the Twenty-fifth Amendment of the Constitution (Protection of Human Life in Pregnancy) Bill, 2002, which would have removed the threat of suicide as a ground for abortion and increased the penalties for helping a woman to have an abortion.
In 2006, another Irish woman loses her name.
Pregnant with twins, one of whom has died in her womb, the other with fatal fetal abnormalities, she has to travel to England to have a termination. Her name is now D.
She has been forced to leave her country to go to England. Now she must travel further, this Irish woman with no name, to whom the saddest thing has happened.
She tells the European Court of Human Rights that Ireland’s ban on abortion in the case of fatal fetal abnormalities violates Articles 1, 3, 8, 20, 13 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The Irish Government argues that the woman should have applied to the Irish courts to have an abortion. She could have been legally entitled to an abortion in Ireland, they argue. They don’t say where in Ireland. Europe agrees that domestic legal remedies had not been exhausted.
The alphabet is being exhausted too – the alphabet we use to protect ourselves from looking into the eyes of the real girls and women we are hurting.
In 2007 a 17-year-old woman in the care of the State finds herself with an anencaphelic pregnancy. HSE social workers challenge the right of a second Miss D to travel to England for a termination. Let her go, the High Court says. Miss D has a right to travel abroad for an abortion.
Two years before D was put in this position that thumped us in the solar plexus of our national shame, three more women were dealing with their own challenges and tragedies. It was back to the beginning of the alphabet.
And so we come to this Thursday, December 16th, 2010, when the European Court of Human Rights will issue a ruling on whether Ireland’s restrictions on abortion violate women’s human rights.
Since 1980 more than 143,479 women and girls have left Ireland to have an abortion abroad. The figure is not final – it rises every day. We have exhausted tens of thousands of alphabets. Now we have three more letters – A, B, and C. Three more women whose bravery, whose resilience, whose selflessness has carried us to the door of another decision on Ireland’s stance on abortion.
Listen to their stories, because every woman has a story. She is not a letter, not a statistic, not a footnote.
On Thursday the ECHR will rule whether the cases of A, B and C involved a transgression of their rights under the European Convention on Human Rights.
Applicant A was living in poverty. She was getting her life together after facing personal problems and was hopeful of being reunited with her four children, who were in care. She got pregnant. It was not planned. Another child was not what she wanted. It was the wrong time and might damage her chances of getting her existing family back together. She went to England for an abortion.
Applicant B had taken emergency contraception after unprotected sex. It didn’t work and she was told she also could be at risk of an ectopic pregnancy. She didn’t want to go ahead with the pregnancy at this time or run the risks associated with an ectopic pregnancy. She travelled to England and had an abortion.
Applicant C had battled cancer for three years. She had become pregnant unintentionally after the cancer had gone into remission, but had undergone a series of tests contra-indicated during pregnancy, while she was unaware that she was pregnant. C had not been able to find a doctor in Ireland who would tell her whether her life would be endangered by the pregnancy or if the foetus would be affected by the tests she had undergone. Given the uncertainty and the risks involved, she travelled to England to have an abortion.
These are the bare bones of these women’s cases. They do not do justice to the women or what they have suffered at the hands of a State that chooses to look the other way, as long as the other way involves a plane or a ferry to somewhere else.
The ECHR must decide whether Ireland has failed to vindicate the human rights of these three women.
If they decide this is the case, then we will no longer have need of the alphabet to save us from ourselves. Sophie, Ava, Emma, Sarah, Grace, Emily, Katie, Lucy, Aoife and Chloe can keep their good names. And we will have grown up.

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I’m sitting in a large auditorium with my husband. We, along with the hundreds of other parents present, are thinking of applying for a place for our son in the school which houses this impressive theatre. We listen to various speakers describe the amazing facilities on offer; the state-of-the-art science and computer labs, the 25 metre pool, extensive sports grounds, the opportunities to take part in plays, musicals, debating, choir or orchestra. Not to mention the foreign trips, the charitable and cultural programmes, the rigorous academic standards. A sixth year pupil can’t speak highly enough of the school and the incredible experience he has had there.

At the end of the evening, we feel like losing contestants on ‘Bullseye’, the cult darts-themed quiz show hosted by Jim Bowen. Just before the show’s closing credits there was a slightly cruel twist; crestfallen punters were forced to watch as the curtains opened to reveal the ‘Star Prize’. At this moment Jim would deliver his catchphrase ‘Look what you could have won’ in his trademark jovial, yet regretful, tone.

We’ve had a glimpse behind the curtain, but we know there’s little chance we’ll win the star prize. Look what we could have won – if only dad had attended the school.

School access can be limited for those without connections

This particular school is fee-paying and massively oversubscribed. Its admission policy states that places are offered first to those in ‘priority groups’ which include brothers of past or current pupils, sons, grandsons or nephews of past pupils, sons of staff members and close relatives of members of the religious order which runs the school.

This year, over two thirds of the places in the school were offered to those in priority groups before anyone else was considered. Our son, with no brothers and a non-Irish dad, only ever stood an outside chance of being offered a place. Sure enough, we recently received a ‘thanks for your interest’ letter.

We also applied to two non fee-paying local schools but we have had no success there either. Their admission policies also favour sons and/or brothers of past pupils. Our boy is near the bottom of the waiting list in one of these schools. Things were looking more hopeful in the other, where he is higher on the list. But alas, they received more than the usual number of applications from siblings this year, and have told us they will only be offering ‘one or two’ places to those on the waiting list.

Last week the Equality Tribunal ruled that a Clonmel school’s admission policy, which gives priority to sons or brothers of past pupils, is discriminatory. Details are here: http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/frontpage/2010/1210/1224285195609.html

This ruling may force schools to review their admission policies, though I have a feeling it will be strongly resisted. In the meantime, we have made late applications to three more schools and are keeping everything crossed.

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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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I remember the first time I saw a woman in Dublin wearing a burqa. It was May, 2003; the final day of my third-year college exams. I was sitting on the footpath on the South Circular Road, doing some last-minute revision. As I was skimming through my notes, I noticed what appeared to be a large mound of black material trundling in my direction. It took me a second or two to realise that the mound was, in fact, a human being. The figure’s height and outline were the only visible clues as to its gender: limbs, torso, neck and head were all covered in heavy fabric and even the woman’s face was hidden behind a dark meche. Beside her, walked two little boys in white summer outfits. I found the whole scene pretty depressing.

The next time I saw any form of veil at close quarters was a couple of years later, when I was in England studying for a Masters degree. While I was there, I lived with thirteen other women, including two Muslims, both of whom wore a hijab to cover their hair and neckline. Since it was an all-female house, both of the women frequently took off their hijab indoors but it was expected that we would warn them in advance if we were having any male visitors so they could cover up. One evening, a friend of mine arrived into the kitchen unannounced, which resulted in much consternation and at least one woman hiding behind a fridge.

Both D. (a lawyer from Malaysia, whose parents were extremely disappointed when she began to wear a veil) and Z. (a bubbly divorcée from Jordan) felt that wearing the hijab was a demonstration of their commitment to their faith but neither felt any religious requirement to cover her face or to wear a burqa. Both regarded the burqa as a cultural, rather than a religious garment, the wearing of which was not demanded by the Qu’ran.

The practical differences between the hijab and the burqa or niqab are huge and, personally, I think that the recent banning of the latter garments by the French parliament is a positive step for human rights. It’s not a question of racism, intolerance or Islamophobia – it’s about identity, which, in any State, is both a right and an obligation. In his arguments in favour of the ban, President Sarkozy stated that “the defining duty of French citizenship is to engage with ones fellow citizens, which is to say, to engage face to face in the public sphere and in the workplace, the metro, the market”. No woman whose face is covered (even if its covering hasn’t been imposed on her) can expect to play a full and active role in public life – I certainly can’t imagine a scenario in which men would be granted the dubious privilege of wandering around in public wearing a mask.

With all this in mind, I was surprised to see David Mitchell, in his Observer column, speaking out against any equivalent ban in the UK:

Governments and legislatures shouldn’t tell people what they can and can’t wear… As long as people aren’t wearing crotchless jeans outside primary schools or deely boppers with attached sparklers on petrol station forecourts, we’ve all got the right to wear exactly what the hell we like and I can barely believe that we’re having this debate.

But we are. Stupid people are thinking about an issue that doesn’t need to be thought about and a YouGov survey says 67% of us want full-face veils outlawed. Just when I thought my estimation of humanity couldn’t fall any further, I discover that two-thirds of my fellow countrymen are, or at least were for the duration of taking a survey, morons.

The reality is that people are told what they can and can’t wear all the time, sometimes by governments and legislatures. We can’t wear crotchless jeans outside primary schools, we can’t wear sunglasses when we’re having our passport photos taken and we can’t expect to engage with bureaucracy while wearing a balaclava. What’s so special about a burqa?

Aoife Kelleher

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Arlene Hunt. There you go, that’s it. That’s the name I’ve had for nearly 38 years. It’s on my passport, my driving license, my books, my mortgage paper work, oh, and my birth cert. Suffice to say it is as much a part of my identity as my grey eyes and my height.

So much a part of my identity is it that when I got married I kept my name. It wasn’t a big decision, there was no major discussion, I never thought to take Andrew’s name, he never expected me to do so. I’m me, he is he, together we are we, but individual wees * .

It comes then as something of a surprise to me that in 2010 the keeping of one’s own name might cause an eyebrow raise. I have caused some confusion. Why did I not take his name when we became man and wife? Was he ‘okay’ with this? ( no, really) What if we have children? What will they be called** And my personal favourite, ‘why get married at all if you’re going to keep your own name?’ ***

I might point out that my husband’s family never subjected me to this kind of questioning, nor my own family for that matter, rather it seems the unease exists in people who are in no way connected to me on a personal level, and thus it makes me ponder all the more why my surname should trouble them so unduly.

I like my surname. It is the same surname my daughter has, I use it professionally. But all of those reasons pale in comparison to the real reason I am still Arlene Hunt, and that is because I find the notion of trading in my name for another to be old-fashioned and frankly not something I would care to do.

I get that for some people marriage is the start of a new life and new family, but Andrew and I lived together for many years before marriage, keeping happily our names while sharing a life. Once the rings were exchanged neither of us gave any real thought to the politics of a name change. He was still him, I was still me, our we had a more legal basis, but still much the same.

A friend recently told me that her husband would have been grievously hurt had she not changed her name after marriage. It might even have been a deal breaker.  I said ‘I see.’ And I did see, but part of me also thought, well why did it have to be you who capitulated. Why not him? What if you had been hurt about the loss of your name?  Oh that’s right, it was expected that she would change, after all there is the small matter of that great sleeping dog, tradition. Let it lay slumbering.

Anyway, far be it for me to disparage any woman’s decision. If she was happy to change her name for the sake of peace and quiet so be it. Also many women actively want to change their names to create a new family/identity. I did not. There ought to be room for all of us, without the raised eyebrows and the quick reach for the fainting couch upon learning that the sleeping dog just had its tail trod on.

If I may  borrow Shakespeare for a neat little ending,

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”

* yes I know how that sounds.

** Dear lord if I discovered I was pregnant names would be the very least of my concerns.

***er tax? Love? Tax?

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