T4. Ms Armstrong asked the Minister of Justice whether she agrees that it has never been so important for all of us to do what we can to end violence against women in Northern Ireland because, to return to the issue of drinks being spiked and young people being jabbed in the arm with some sort of drug, as the mother of a teenage girl, she is extremely concerned that this is happening a time when nightclubs and so on are reopening. (AQT 1734/17-22)
I completely agree with the Member. I know that she will have listened carefully to my answer to the first topical question. The very specific experience of direct and indirect violence that women and girls face in society is an issue that is extremely important to me and one that I have prioritised. It is for that reason that I recommended a cross-departmental violence against women and girls strategy to the Executive. The Executive Office will then take that cross-cutting issue forward, along with cross-departmental cooperation, to ensure that we support effective delivery. I will do all that I can to support the strategy.
I have raised the issue of drug spiking at the Executive. I have also asked for an update at the next Executive meeting on progress with respect to the women and girls strategy. I have also listened to victims and have been working with partners such as the PSNI on the issue of drinks being spiked and will be discussing it further with the Chief Constable when I meet him this afternoon. Again, I urge anyone who believes that their drink may have been spiked or that they may have been injected to report it to the police. The Chief Constable will update me on his work to address violence against women and girls, and, as I said, I have asked the Executive for an update later this week.
During this mandate, I have brought forward an ambitious agenda of activity to protect those most at risk of violence, including the Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Act (Northern Ireland) 2021, the Protection from Stalking Bill and changes to implement recommendations in the Gillen review. That has included discussions with a wide range of stakeholders. While many of the measures will affect everyone in society, they will disproportionately benefit women and girls due to the gendered nature of many of the offences.
I thank the Minister for her answer and the work that she is doing. As I mentioned, I am the mother of a teenage girl. One issue that has come to light for me is that, when she walks home, she faces indirect violence through street harassment. Street harassment seems to come up more and more often for young women. The Minister will be aware of the ongoing harassment of women outside the John Mitchel Place clinic in Newry, amongst other locations. Does she agree that buffer zones or safe-access zones are necessary to protect young women who are accessing healthcare, as well the staff who provide those services?
I thank the Member for her question. There are two distinct elements to it. There is the broader issue of street harassment, which is incredibly difficult to tackle through a criminal-justice lens, but is one on which I am working with others who are campaigning in this space to see whether more can be done to protect women from unwarranted abuse in the street. It is an incredibly frightening experience for young women to be approached by, often, quite bawdy individuals who shout abuse or make lewd comments as the women go about their daily lives. It is completely disrespectful. We need to target that.
I am also fully aware of the ongoing protests that are being held outside healthcare facilities across Northern Ireland, and the disruptive impact that they are causing, not only to vulnerable pregnant people who seek to access abortion services, but to those who seek general medical care and healthcare staff who are trying to carry out their duties. No one should have to face that kind of harassment. Everyone has a right to protest, but, equally, everyone should have the right to access healthcare free from harassment and intimidation. Healthcare workers should be able to go to their work free from that type of violence.
I am conscious that all trusts are reporting significant challenges in dealing with that issue, which appears to be growing. I am also concerned that some trusts are saying that they are having difficulty resolving the issue in the location where abortion services are delivered, and that that creates real disruption to their patients. I had hoped that we would be in a position to table an amendment to what was the justice (miscellaneous provisions) Bill in order to provide for exclusion zones. Disappointingly, we could not get Executive agreement on its introduction. However, I support Clare Bailey's private Member's Bill on safe-access zones, and will continue to assist its progress in whatever way I can.