Enough of the talking, but more action against Sexual Violence

views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“When it comes to what can be done, we must acknowledge that the lack of proper reform is down to political choice, or rather, a lack of political drive.”

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The Prime Minister described the current conviction rate for sexual assault as a “scandal” and declared that he wanted to increase the number of successful rape prosecutions and send more perpetrators to jail.

It was 2 June 2010, and David Cameron was addressing the Commons as part of Prime Minister’s Questions.

Since that comment in June 2010, conviction rates have worsened. Then, the conviction rate was considered to be close to 6%, but now official figures have it as being 1% of all reported rapes. Per Victims' Commissioner Dame Vera Baird, “the level of prosecutions has got so low that what we are witnessing is the de-criminalisation of rape".

In the wake of a horrible week that started with International’s Women’s Day and discussions around how we can better combat violence against women, and ended with the disturbing scenes at the vigil for Sarah Everard on Clapham Common, I have heard the same government pledges coming to the fore.

It has echoes of the empty ‘thoughts and prayers’ offered up after mass shootings in the US in the absence of proper reform on gun ownership.

I hope that I am wrong, and that the events of the last week represent a turning point in how we might properly use the justice system to protect women, and others, from sexual violence or other attacks. But I felt the same about the #MeToo Movement. I felt the same about the murder of Amy-Leanne Stringfellow last June. I have felt it many times before and I am tired of being let down.

On Monday it was reported that the re-opened Home Office consultation into Violence Against Women and Girls had received over 78,000 responses, a number deemed “unprecedented” by Home Secretary, Priti Patel.

This could only be unprecedented if you have simply not been listening.

Each of the 78,000 responses is valuable, and valued, but we have heard these voices before. We have heard the experiences of survivors, about their attack and of the (mis)handling of their case through our justice system. We have, as a state, ignored their individual voices time and time again.

When it comes to what can be done, we must acknowledge that the lack of proper reform is down to political choice, or rather, a lack of political drive. When there are votes on the line we can be very swift in introducing change. Less than a year after statues were felled in protests we now have the passage of a law would see future perpetrators face up to ten years of jail time. Perhaps the decades-long dalliance of consecutive governments (of all political hues) comes down to what it fundamentally says about who we are. This problem asks difficult questions about our society and some of the key institutions within it; politics, media, justice etc. See how quickly the narrative in some places moved towards a male-centric defence of #NotAllMen. Or how rapidly some rolled out the all-too-familiar victim blaming of ‘shouldn’t be walking home alone’.

This is a rehearsed, repeated defence – one that immediately distorts the reality of the problem. Women, in particular, are not safe from attackers and the majority of the attackers are men who will very likely not be prosecuted.

We should be shocked that this is still so prevalent, be we should not be surprised, as it is rooted in the processes and procedures of our justice system. We know that victims of sexual assault can experience ‘hostile’ interview settings where they feel pressured and disbelieved. Think of the now-abandoned directive that required victims to hand over their mobile phones as part of said process. Look at the perpetuation of myths and stereotypes about rape and sexual assault that still persist in both the courtroom and beyond.

Our system asks so much of victims, demands that they are perfect in their responses, rather than turn its focus onto the perpetrator.

The Home Secretary, in discussing the new domestic abuse bill this week, said that new laws “will end the halfway release for those convicted of sexual offences including rape - they will spend two thirds of their sentence behind bars".

That may sound good at first, but that is an increase of 50% to 66% of an already short sentence, and it only exists for the 1% who are jailed. It will act as no deterrent whatsoever to a perpetrator. It is a granular change when the only option is radical overhaul.

The Government have said that they are listening to women and girls and their views will "help to shape a new strategy" on tackling violence against them.

Let’s see those voices turned into meaningful, immediate action. 

Have your say...

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  • Denise Ruprai
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    1. At 5:49PM on 24 March 2021, Denise Ruprai wrote

    The social ' justice ' system is frankly ill-equipped to deal with any and all matters relating to domestic abuse, intimate partner rape, rape and sexual assault/ sexual harassment. It is all too common for the legal process to make a mockery of the victim, by allowing character assassinations pertaining to previous sexual behaviours, preferences, appearance. The process is onerous on the victim and all too often re-traumatising itself, with very limited mental health support offered.

    The matter of 'consent' is all too often left outside of the court room, with defence barristers commonly adapting the approach of creating 'just enough' doubt, to prevent conviction.

    Conviction rates have dropped, as social attitudes towards sex have become more open. At the same time women are still 'slut shamed' for e.g. frequent partners or liberal sexual attitudes. A perpetrator does not need to deny intercourse/sexual violence, he simply needs to claim it was consensual and the victim 'liked it that way".

    Review the many (fairly recent!) cases where intimate partner violence has led to the death of women, and a defence of ' sex game gone wrong ' was adopted. This simply should not be allowed.

    There is far too little utilisation of expert witnesses, who may explain trauma responses, since those are another aspect prosecutions fail on. In-court narrative of how a victim should behave, is presented along contrasting 'evidence' of how the woman in question did not behave accordingly.

    Excuses such as , the rape couldn't have occurred because the alleged perpetrator could have simply had sex with another willing subject, the alleged perpetrator already had a girlfriend, the alleged victim is not the perpetrators type(!), are also far too commonplace, and ignore the fact that rape/sexual abuse are not centred around sexual activity , but power. Given that rape, as an indictable offence is always tried in Crown Court, and the "Jury of peers" are laymen with no legal/criminal/psychological background, there are very little efforts made to ensure the jury does not hold harmful stereotypes surrounding intimate partner rape / rape in particular.

    A lot of evidence is also lost with the police investigation, depending on initial investigations (did response attend, or PPU?/ was evidence secured in a timely manner)? Frontline police officers received very little to no training on domestic abuse/intimate partner rape, a fact that also needs to be changed. Response officers, in particular, but also PPU officer (OICs in rape investigations) must received much more in-depth specialist training in order to produce bundles that meet the CPS threshold tests and even progress through to the court stage.

    Rape is an underreported crime, as it is. Even the 1%You will find that most women living in abusive relationships can recount events of intimate partner violence, that were never reported because they didn't understand it at the time.

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