Northern Ireland: a sexists' paradise? | Belfast and Beyond | 2 Oct 2008 | Amnesty International UK

Northern Ireland: a sexists' paradise?

Amnesty's survey of student attitudes on violence against women in Northern Ireland has set off a welcome media and blog debate about the Neanderthal views held by so many here towards women.

The interest has been so great and I have now carried out so many interviews about this over the last 48 hours that I am almost talked out about just how disturbing the poll findings really are.

But let's recap: here are just a few of the survey headlines:
- 46% of students thought that a women who had been raped was partially or totally to blame if she had been acting flirtatiously;
- 44% felt the same way if the woman was drunk;
- 30% if she was wearing sexy or revealing clothing;
- 10% felt that it was acceptable for a man to hit his girlfriend or partner if she had flirted with another man;
- 9% thought it acceptable to hit her if she nagged.

The findings reveal a massive problem in Northern Irish society – sexist values, leading to acceptance of extreme violence towards women; values which are so ingrained that even many of our youngest and apparently best educated adults have taken them as their own.

Previous surveys in Britain and the Republic have revealed some similar findings, but the attitudes found in the Northern Ireland poll sadly are significantly worse than those uncovered elsewhere.

Malachi O'Doherty, commenting on the survey on yesterday's BBC Radio Ulster Talkback programme, made the point that these attitudes don't just exist among students but are to be found at the heart of the legal system:

"It is not only they who think that the woman who gets raped hasn’t a leg to stand on.
Recently the criminal injuries compensation board announced that awards to 27 raped women had been miscalculated because they had been wrongly reduced to allow for the fact that the women had been drinking."

Fionola Meredith on Comment is Free notes that violence against women has lost out as an issue of any political importance amidst Northern Ireland's obsession with constitutional questions:

"Women's rights have long languished near the bottom of the political agenda in the North, constantly displaced by the constitutional tug-of-war. The situation is really dire. Earlier this year, government figures showed a 50% rise in reported rapes over the previous six years, yet Northern Ireland has the worst support services for the victims of sexual violence in the UK. Our one heroic rape crisis centre is woefully under-funded, constantly teetering on the verge of closure. Women here have no access to specialist domestic violence courts, and there are no support services for women seeking to escape prostitution, trafficking and sexual exploitation."

That is something which Amnesty is trying to play its part in changing through our Stop Violence Against Women campaign, of which this survey is just one element.

In March the End Violence Against Women coalition – of which Amnesty is a member – published its audit (Making the Grade?) of the performance of Northern Ireland government departments in tackling such violence. The conclusions were, unsurprisingly, pretty critical of government. Ministers were not well pleased and the Department of Health put out a statement calling our report "well meaning" but mistaken.

Two and half months later Michael McGimpsey hosted the first meeting at Stormont of the newly-established Inter-Ministerial Group on Domestic and Sexual Violence – a move we had called for and welcomed.

Over the coming weeks we will be meeting various Executive Ministers to push for an integrated strategy to tackle violence against women and to see real action on the sorts of issues highlighted in our report and mentioned above by Fionola Meredith.

The students who responded to our survey should not be damned as if they hold views untypical of the rest of Northern Irish society -  where do we think these young people got those views?

This is a Northern Ireland-wide societal problem and it needs a Northern Ireland-wide solution. Lets hope our Ministers – and the rest of us – are up for this monumental, multi-generational challenge.

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