Abuse: Adolescent Relationships

Oral Answers to Questions — Justice – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:30 pm on 23rd November 2021.

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Photo of Cara Hunter Cara Hunter Social Democratic and Labour Party 2:30 pm, 23rd November 2021

T1. Ms Hunter asked the Minister of Justice, in the light of this Thursday being the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and the fact that it is reported that one in four young women, aged between 15 and 19 years old, has experienced psychological, sexual or physical abuse from a partner, what steps her Department is taking to address abuse in adolescent relationships in Northern Ireland (AQT 1821/17-22)

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I thank the Member for her question and for her continued interest in the issue. She is, of course, right to highlight the issue of violence against women and girls. It is something that we recognise and see through not only domestic abuse and violence in our communities but the kind of intimidation, misogyny and sexism that we see in wider society. It has a huge impact on not only the mental health and well-being of young women and girls but their aspirations. Such intimidation and behaviour limits their life choices.

Trying to deal with those issues is a priority for me, and it is something that I want to see being developed. However, when it comes to dealing with young people, particularly, the key vehicle is the Department of Education. The previous Minister, who I see in the Chamber at the moment, had committed to a review of the minimum content order and had engaged with me, proactively, on the issues and how Education could play a role in delivering on the Gillen review, for example, when it comes to such issues as consent and other matters, in the school curriculum. Sadly, that has not been reflected in the performance of his successor. I have written to the Minister of Education, asking for an update on the issue, on two occasions, and have not had any response, and, given comments that were made at a recent Executive meeting, it appears that she has resiled from the idea that there is any review ongoing of relationships and sexuality education in schools.

Photo of Cara Hunter Cara Hunter Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for her response. I express my support for, and solidarity with, her following the events that took place last week. I agree with her wholeheartedly: education is a big part of the answer in teaching young people what abuse looks and sounds like. It is extremely disappointing that the Education Minister has not responded on the matter. Will the Justice Minister assure us that her Department will liaise with the Department of Education, where possible, in the future, to ensure that, on these sensitive issues, our curriculum is fit for purpose for young people?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I thank the Member for her support; indeed, I thank many Members for their support over the past week. Those of you who know me well will know that I will not be deflected by bullying, be it online or in person. However, I recognise that there will be those who witness it and will question whether, as women, they want to step into the public eye and, potentially, have themselves subjected to such abuse. That is wrong, because it deprives our community of important voices that need to be heard.

The Member asked about my Department continuing to engage with the Department of Education. We ran three workshops with the Department of Education, and we have worked well with its officials in trying to move things forward. However, it is important that the policy is driven by the Minister. Therefore, it is important that we are able to sit down and have the conversation about how we can move this forward during this mandate, in the hope of being able to provide for a fresh start in the next mandate, because, obviously, the legislation would not happen in the current mandate.

It is hugely important that we provide proper relationships and sexuality education. It should be age-appropriate and sensitive, but it should also be fact-based, and it should equip young people for life. That means giving young people the information that they need and showing them what healthy relationships look like. The assumption that every young person will have a role model for that at home is profoundly flawed. We see that when we know that one in three women will have been subjected to domestic abuse and violence. Therefore, we need to provide that sort of wrap-around support in schools. In doing so, we will also create an opportunity for young people to come forward and confide in teachers their experiences of domestic abuse and violence in the home.