On behalf of Cosc, and the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, it is my great pleasure to welcome you here today and to open Cosc’s first conference –Stopping Domestic Violence: What Works?
As Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, the question of how to stop domestic violence is one of many important challenges which I look forward to addressing. I hope I can bring a fresh perspective and new enthusiasm to all of the areas covered by my remit, and to the area of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence in particular.
We are all aware of the devastating physical, social, emotional and financial impact of domestic violence upon individuals and families. Some of the most recent data collected in Ireland show that in 2005, 15 per cent of women (or about one in seven) and six per cent of men (or one in 16) have experienced severely abusive behaviour of a physical, sexual or emotional nature from an intimate partner at some time in their lives.
While the risk to women is higher, domestic abuse is something that also affects a significant number of men. This data also suggests that somewhere in the region of 213,000 women and 88,000 men in Ireland have been severely abused by a partner. It should be noted however, that women’s injuries tend to be more serious – women are nearly twice as likely as men to require medical treatment for their injuries and ten times more likely to require a stay in hospital. Domestic abuse is also an issue that can severely affect older people. Between 12,000 and 20,000 older people in Ireland suffer from abuse, neglect, and/or maltreatment – not including those living in institutions. I am concerned for all of these direct victims and for those who are indirectly affected - their children, their parents, their siblings and their friends, many of whom want to help and simply don’t know what to do.
Domestic violence has serious consequences for both the individual victim and the wider society. It not only has an important personal and social cost, but also an economic cost. While the effects of domestic violence on our society are obviously enormous they are also very difficult to measure. Apart from calculating the economic cost of the justice, health, housing, social, civil and legal services involved, how do we calculate the human and emotional cost involved?
Some studies undertaken in Council of Europe Member States have estimated the ratio between the estimated annual cost and the population of the country being as high as €555 per capita per annum. Using this ratio as a guideline, Ireland’s estimated cost of domestic violence could be somewhere in the region of €2.2 billion.
Domestic violence is criminal behaviour, and requires action by the criminal justice system. However, there is compelling evidence that many of those affected never report the behaviour to those in the criminal justice system. Despite the seriousness of the impact of domestic abuse, only a minority (one in five) report the behaviour to the Gardaí, and men are less likely than women to report (5 per cent compared to 29 per cent of women among those severely abused). Women and men give similar reasons for not reporting the abuse, most often related to the seriousness of the abuse, a preference for handling the situation themselves, and the shame or embarrassment they feel.
Clearly we need to continue reassuring people that domestic abuse cases will be handled professionally, with the utmost sensitivity and will be treated very seriously. We need also to track societal norms and understandings about domestic violence and accordingly ensure the appropriate information, support and services are available, to both women and men experiencing domestic abuse. Cosc in fact has begun the first phase of a major survey of public attitudes to domestic violence which will inform all aspects of Cosc’s work. It is anticipated that the results of this survey will be published in the autumn and I’ve no doubt they will make for interesting reading which will demand action by many of us here today.
It is vital that we increase the focus of perpetrators and potential perpetrators. All levels of domestic abuse are abhorrent to a civilised society. We have to make it easier for victims to report, and make perpetrators face up to their crimes and change their behaviour. All of us play a role in ensuring that victims of domestic violence feel safe in seeking assistance and that we must be clear and unambiguous at all times in our message to perpetrators: domestic violence is a crime.
I am extremely pleased that the significant importance of the issue of domestic, sexual and gender based violence in general, and domestic violence in particular, is reflected in the work involved in this two day conference and by the prestige of speakers and delegates it has attracted. This is first time such a high level conference has been organised by a dedicated government office to address the problem of domestic violence. I am confident that this conference will be a valuable tool in supporting and developing the on-going work of Cosc.
The establishment of Cosc provides us with an opportunity to take a fresh look at how we at government level approach the issue of domestic violence. The establishment of an office to co-ordinate and lead a whole-of-government approach to this issue is a first, and where there are new challenges, equally there are new opportunities too.
A key objective of Cosc is to lead and develop a National Strategy on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. This conference will pay a vital role in broadening our views as to what should be considered in the National Strategy and comparing approaches implemented and evaluated in other jurisdictions. The conference agenda covers issues across the justice, health and housing sectors as well as issues of integration and specific responses implemented in other jurisdictions. A report of the conference will be circulated as part of the package of documents to inform consultation on the National Strategy and this report will feed into a "direction-setting" paper in which we explore options for models of interventions, which may be suitable in the Irish context.
As well as informing our National Strategy, I also hope that the conference will act as a valuable platform for the exchange of information and debate. I very much welcome the opportunity the conference is granting us to assemble key people involved on both the policy and the service delivery side. Everyone in this room plays a vital role in supporting victims, and in preventing domestic violence. The coming year offers many challenges but it also offers all of us a great opportunity to collaborate on very meaningful work which can make a real difference to people living in our communities, people who deserve our joint, committed efforts to ensure that we maximise prevention and respond effectively. Continued and strengthened co-operation at both the level of service-delivery and government is essential in order to meet these challenges. Real change is possible, but only if we work together.
I can assure everyone gathered here today that I, and my officials in Cosc are very much aware of, and appreciative of, all your hard work and efforts in the area of domestic violence over the past number of years. I would like to take this opportunity to wish each of you the very best in your continued efforts to combat domestic violence and I look forward to a long and effective working relationship between Cosc and your organisation in order to increase awareness of domestic violence, encourage victims to report their experiences and help to improve services available for those affected by these crimes.
Finally I would like to thank all of our speakers for travelling here today and I am confident that the knowledge gained and information shared here over the next couple of days will inspire all of us and help to improve our response to the problem of domestic violence in Ireland.