Emer Smith at the solidarity march in Limerick Picture: Adrian Butler
THE ‘wheels are starting to turn’ when it comes to sexual violence following discussion, debate and public displays of solidarity in the wake of the Belfast Rape Trial.
After the four men involved in the trial, including Ireland and Ulster rugby players, Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding, were acquitted of all charges brought against them, up to 300 people gathered at the #IBelieveHer Solidarity Rally on Thomas Street in Limerick city.
Like attendees at rallies nationwide, the crowd brought with them placards and yellow flowers as signs of support for all those affected by sexual violence.
A national review into how sexual assault trials are conducted has now been ordered by Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan, who is considering if further protections should be given to rape victims.
The way sex education is taught in schools is also being reviewed for the first time in 18 years, with the issue of consent, and what it means, to be included on the curriculum.
And in the Limerick Leader today, one of Ireland’s highest-ranking gardai spoke out publicly to encourage women who have been sexually assaulted to report the crimes made against them.
Assistant Commissioner David Sheahan, who didn’t comment on the details of the Belfast Rape Trial, encouraged victims to come forward, saying: “There is no more heinous crime than the rape of a woman.”
It's hard to imagine these changes and statements being brought to the fore without the ensuing discussion and debate following the verdict.
Yvonne Murphy, founder of the Limerick Feminist Network and the organiser behind the Limerick rally, said she was “absolutely blown away” by the turn-out on the day, especially as the gathering was organised in less than 24-hours.
“It was lovely but it just goes to show how many people can be affected by sexual violence and this kind of thing, and how many people were upset by what happened.”
Yvonne, who also works with Rape Crisis Mid-West, said that while people found the case upsetting, there has been a notable increase in engagement with the centre in the past week.
“The amount of people who felt helpless and they didn’t like that feeling so they wanted to channel their energy towards something productive and positive by doing something for the Rape Crisis Centre. We’ve a lot of volunteers who have come forward. It's really nice to see.
“When was the last time a group of people came together to show that the status quo wasn’t good enough when it comes to sexual assault, the justice system and consent?
“It was solidarity with every single survivor of sexual violence who either did report, or it didn’t get to court, or it was thrown out of court, or people who couldn’t even report. It was about the people who spoke up and weren’t believed. It was for the whole lot. It meant so much more. It may have started because of the trial but it was a lot bigger than that.
“We’re on the right track now with consent coming into primary schools. It needs to be done, age-appropriate education on consent.” A number of free resources are already available, she added. “The wheels are starting to turn in that direction already.
“And looking after witnesses, giving them representation in court so that they know that the justice system is looking out for them as well because it can be a lonely place. We need to do more to look after people.”
Rape Crisis Mid-West can be contacted on FreePhone 1800-311511 or 061-311511.