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A PROPOSAL FOR ST. VALENTINE’S DAY – blog post from Noeline Blackwell

Tomorrow, 14 February 2017, the Tánaiste or her representative on behalf of the Department of Justice & Equality will make a proposal to our Senators of which all followers of St. Valentine must be proud.

That proposal will be to pass legislation to better protect children from on-line sexual exploitation; to clarify the meaning of consent in sexual activity; to move the criminal spotlight from those exploited in prostitution to those who exploit and to allow better protection for some very vulnerable, abused people who have to give evidence in court. That will come in the presentation of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill 2015 to the Seanad.

Apart from the provisions relating to prostitution which have generated dissent and lots of debate, the other provisions of this long overdue legislation seem to have a broad general support in our Oireachtas. In addition, most of the parliamentarians who have spoken on the topic seem to recognise how urgent it is that we enact and implement this legislation.

About half of our clients In the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre are adult victims of child sexual abuse.  We saw 499 clients in 2015. About half of those who contact us on the National 24-Hour helpline are also adult victims of childhood sexual abuse. We had 11,789 contacts on the Helpline in 2015. Therefore, we know, as a matter of fact, the damage that childhood sexual abuse can do.  It can distort childhood. The damage done and the burdens that it creates can mean that a person’s whole life – their relationships with others, their jobs, and their education – can be twisted and indeed can be ruined.

This Bill is important to us for a number of reasons.  It has the potential to protect today’s children from being our clients of the future. Everyone – including those who seek to prey on children – knows that our law has lagged way behind technology, leaving our children at risk of damage and perpetrators of harm at large.

As our technology changes, so does our society. There is a greater recognition of the need for consent in sexual activity. This Bill proposes including a statutory definition of consent will be a big step in clarifying when consent does not exist and in hammering home the reality that sex without consent is rape. For that reason too, we support the proposals to decriminalise prostitutes and make those who exploit them responsible. Other provisions around court behaviour hopefully will also add to the protection of extremely vulnerable people.

Tomorrow’s Bill to the Seanad has a long tail. Starting with recommendations to Government by the Special Rapporteur on Children Dr. Geoffrey Shannon over 7 years ago, and a lengthy Justice Committee consideration of the prostitution aspect in 2013, this Bill was first debated by the Seanad in October 2015. Lengthy and full debate ensured its slow delivery to the Dáil which debated it right up to the day that the Dáil was dissolved a year ago. Then the hiatus of government formation meant that it was months in limbo. It finally passed through the Dáil in early February 2017. Now, it is back to the Seanad to look at amendments made to what it passed in January 2016, over a year ago.

The Bill is certainly necessary. It is certainly overdue. What is uncertain is what the Seanad will do tomorrow. Will they recognise the urgency and necessity of this legislation? Will they recognise that their House has thoroughly debated the Bill already and respect their predecessors’ debate? Or will they want to entirely re-open debate on every single aspect of it as some have suggested should happen simply because the Seanad has different members now than it did a year ago?

All we ask is that our Senators recognise the good that this legislation seeks to do and the terrible harm that it seeks to limit and that they use their power and privilege and their humanity and common sense to protect some of the most vulnerable in our land.

Noeline Blackwell is CEO of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. www.drcc.ie



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