The Blog

We Need to Talk About Rape

For many of us, rape often remains invisible. It is not acknowledged, discussed or even prosecuted. Yet for survivors, it is a traumatic, life-changing event. Whether the assailant is unknown or even if he is a partner, survivors need support. Being in a relationship does not mean that sexual rights are void.

Thanks to Coronation Street actors, I'm a Celebrity... contestants, horrendous events in America and a recent English High Court correctly ruling that it can occur even when sex was consensual, rape has not been far from the public consciousness in recent weeks.

Yet there is still a lack of willingness to talk openly about rape. There is a social stigma attached to it. It is one of society's most brutal and disgusting sins. It is still taboo. To most of us, it is an unthinkable crime, so to most of us, it is better not to think about.

But rape is very much a problem in the UK; a growing one.

Around 85,000 women are raped every year in England and Wales alone. Another 400,000 women are victims of sexual assault and over 20% of all women aged 16-59 have experienced some form of sexual violence, according to the Government's Official Statistics Bulletin.

Worryingly, only one in 30 rape victims will see their attacker brought to justice. Last year, 15,670 rapes were reported. Only 2,910 prosecutions were mounted with a mere 1,070 rapists convicted. In 19 cases, convicted rapists were released with cautions. Of those cases given a full crown court trial, just over half resulted in a conviction, despite British Crime Survey figures showing that 90% of rape victims know the identity of their attacker and over half are assaulted by a partner or ex-partner.

In Scotland, only 25% of reported rapes are prosecuted and according to Scottish Government statistics, reported rapes rose by 19% in 2011/2012, with three being reported every day. However, estimates suggest that just 10% of rape survivors report their experiences to the authorities, so an accurate figure is likely to be far greater.

Northern Ireland has been deemed 'a rapist's paradise' after reported rapes have doubled in recent years, with around 10 reported to police every week. Conviction rates are difficult to ascertain, but it has been suggested that it is as low as 3%. The attitudes to violence are particularly perturbing in the province.

An Amnesty International student survey showed that 46% thought a woman who had been raped was partially or totally to blame if she had been acting flirtatiously. Nearly half felt the same way if the woman was drunk and 30% if she was wearing revealing clothing. One in ten considered it acceptable for a man to hit his girlfriend or partner if she flirted with another man and 9% if she 'nagged'.

If ever there was a wake-up call for the Government, this is it. The rate of violence against UK women and girls is disgustingly high. In the Sexual Violence and Abuse Action Plan (SVAAP), the UK Government did acknowledge that "sexual violence and childhood sexual abuse are two of the most serious and damaging crimes in our society", which are "both a consequence and a cause of gender inequality".

However, efforts to tackle sexual offences are clearly not effective. Over 32% of children, mostly girls, experience some form of sexual abuse and the British Crime Survey suggests that 45% of women have experienced some form of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking. Around three million UK women experience sexual violence every year and many more have suffered violence as children. There are millions who require support to deal with the legacies of victimisation.

Very often, this support comes via Sexual Assault Referral Centres (SARCs) or Rape Crisis centres. For over 30 years, these centres have provided specialist, dedicated services to women and girls who have experienced rape, child sex abuse and other sexual violence.

However, recent research has found that the majority of women have no access to a Rape Crisis centre; it is a 'post-code lottery'. Some highly populated have few centres; there is just one centre for the 7.5million people in Greater London. Crippling underfunding is to blame. Most centres have an annual income of around £81,000. Others rely on grants, but with 79% of those for one year or less, it is a short-term fix.

Strangely, some centres face funding issues because they have a 'women-only' tradition. Despite sexual violence overwhelmingly being committed by men against women and children, many statutory funders do not want to fund a women-only service because it supposedly reinforces gender inequalities. Even Government offices, councils and Probation Services have refused funding or pressured centres to deliver services to men.

However, many survivors simply would not access centres if they catered to men. Women-only and women-led services provide safe spaces for survivors of sexual violence to address their experiences. Many survivors have never told their experiences to anyone before, or accessed any other support.

Even with spectacular levels of underfunding, Rape Crisis centres have an incalculable benefit for survivors. They even support other agencies, engage in Government consultations and undertake prevention work. The work they do is astonishing, given the lack of funding and their dependence on volunteers.

Yet the dedication of volunteers can only carry an organisation so far and rape crisis centres around the UK are closing. Twenty years ago, there were 68 centres in England and Wales. Today, that number has been halved.

For many of us, rape often remains invisible. It is not acknowledged, discussed or even prosecuted. Yet for survivors, it is a traumatic, life-changing event. Whether the assailant is unknown or even if he is a partner, survivors need support. Being in a relationship does not mean that sexual rights are void.

The Government must recognise that more needs to be done besides increasing the ridiculously low rape conviction rate. Securing a criminal conviction is not the only need for rape survivors. As Rape Crisis advocates, a 'holistic' approach is vital; one which focuses on both criminal justice and social justice. With more and more rapes being reported, more victim support is necessary, with or without a conviction.