by Sarah Rabbitts
Many of us are still shocked by the brutal abduction, gang rape and murder of a female student on a bus in Delhi.
And closer to home, we’re also coming to terms with NSPCC’s confirmation that Jimmy Savile, was “without doubt one of the most prolific sex offenders we have ever come across”. The “Giving victims a voice” report states that Savile repeatedly abused girls, women and boys over six decades. The abuses happened in 13 hospitals, 14 schools and on BBC premises – institutions that should have been a safe place for both children and adults. Most worryingly, none of the victims or witnesses successfully exposed Savile’s widespread criminality before his death in 2011.
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper responded to the report by asking for “a proper overarching review led by child protection experts into why everyone failed to stop Savile and what should be done now”. However, it is not only people in positions of influence who are a problem.
Last week, the ministry of defence, home office and office for national statistics released a joint review into rape and sexual assaults. This damning review states that only one in ten victims will report a sexual assault in this country, despite 90% of victims knowing the perpetrator. It also has to be a wake-up call for the home secretary that only 15,670 rapes are reported each year which only equates to a quarter of victims. In simple terms, this means that on average 47,010 rapes aren’t reported.
What these reports demonstrate is that first, a staggering number of women and men are still victims of sexual assault and that second, the British judicial system continues to generate very few convictions.
On the 14th February, or V-Day, a campaign called one billion rising will actively demand an end to violence against women across the world. They ask women to walk out, dance, rise up and demand an end to this violence by activating women and men across every country to organise local events.
One billion rising is telling the world that one in three women will be raped or beaten in her lifetime and that one billion women will be violated in an atrocity. But it’s asking us to use the internet and community events to show women that there are people who are fighting for them.
In this country, one in five women will be a victim of a sexual assault during their lifetime. This is why it’s so important that the Labour party is fully supporting one billion rising. Stella Creasy MP, is heavily involved in promoting the campaign and has recently recorded a video for the Guardian.
It’s agreed that the courts have enough powers to severely punish sex offenders in the UK. What is needed is a greater number of women and men reporting assaults so that there are more successful convictions to act as a deterrent.
One billion rising is a great awareness campaign and has a strong network of supporters across the world. However, it’s essential that authorities and politicians in the UK generate campaigns that will encourage more victims to speak out. Last year the home office launched a television campaign challenging teenagers to re-think what constitutes rape, which was broadcast over Christmas. It’s helpful, but excludes other demographics affected by rape and sexual assault.
Lambeth has one of the highest levels of sexual violence and rape in London. Councillors found that most victims meet their perpetrators at a bar or night club. Last year members of the community, including the Suzy Lamplugh trust, the Brixton business forum, local night venues, the council’s licensing review board and others, began working in partnership to change those venues and to improve women’s safety at night. They launched a women’s safety charter which promotes a unified community response with practical steps for both the council and night venues.
Why are so few women reporting sexual assaults? There’s plenty of evidence to show that women are often embarrassed or believe that it’s a private family matter. Some women might be discouraged by unhelpful media stories of the police failing to protect victims. In November it was widely reported that Rachel Williams rang Gwent police on seven occasions in six weeks to report domestic abuse before she was shot by her estranged husband in her Newport hair salon.
Another explanation is the huge delays in processing rape trials through the courts. When a defendant pleads not guilty to rape it can take on average nearly two years to bring a conviction – surely this is something that Labour can look at ahead of the next election.
There are more reasons why the Labour party needs to reassess the support given to victims of sexual and domestic violence. In November, the national centre of domestic violence reported that there is a connection between domestic violence and austerity: with a 17% increase in attacks since the recession began. However, the government still plans to stop financing all violence against women programmes. It’s also asking women to show that they are at “high risk of violence” before they’re eligible for any legal aid. Under the new proposals, would Rachel Williams be at enough risk or do you have to get shot first?
It’s also essential that victims have more faith in the powers of the police; but that’s against a backdrop of cuts to salaries and police resources that might jeopardise any improvements in the protection currently on offer.
Many of us know that the threat of sexual and domestic violence is still a genuine concern for a number of women in this country and that during periods of austerity it’s increased – the facts speak for themselves. Despite necessary budget cuts, Labour’s belief in social justice must be focused on finding new ways of better safeguarding victims, while both regaining the public’s trust in the institutions that are supposed to protect us and finding ways to encourage more convictions in this country.
Sarah Rabbitts is a member of Vauxhall CLP and works in communications