New Role Announced
The home secretary of the UK recently announced a new police role focused on tackling violence against women as part of its plan to improve the justice process for victims of rape. A senior police chief will be appointed to tackle violence against women and girls, the government will also appoint two “Violence Against Women and Girls Transport Champions”: Laura Shoaf and Anne Shaw to address the problems women face on public transportation.
Other considerations include allowing victims to pre-record their evidence for submission, ensuring phones that are taken away for evidence gathering are returned within a day, and focusing more on the suspect’s behavior and less on victim credibility.
The Catalyst for the Role
This is coming off the back of accumulated complaints on the lack of justice delivered to women and in the wake of heartbreaking incidents such as Sarah Everard’s death, a 33-year-old Kent resident who was kidnapped, raped, and murdered by a police officer.
In addition to this, statistics show rape conviction rates are at a record low. Prosecutions and convictions for adult rape offenses have fallen by 62% and 47% respectively since 2015/16. These are appalling figures that serve as a shameful reminder of how often women are being failed by the justice system during such traumatic experiences. There is even more cause for concern when you consider the fact that rapists are often serial criminals.
The pandemic has also meant that far fewer cases, of all kinds, are reaching court. There is an increasing heap of outstanding cases to sort through (now at almost 60,000) which the government says will take years to work through. Sexual offence cases also traditionally take a longer time to reach trial which further aggravates the situation.
Justice secretary Robert Buckland has publicly apologized to victims for the disappointing statistics, stating that their current review, the End-to-End rape review has revealed the failure of the criminal justice process in addressing cases of rape and sexual assault. He followed up the apology with a promise to do a lot better so that such criminals are brought to justice – starting with rolling out this new plan that is “all about taking practical steps to change the situation and to address the causes for this failure”
It is commendable that the government seems to be in conversation with real people who have suffered from the failings they seek to redress. The foreword to this review was by an independent Advisor named Emily Hunt, a victim of rape herself. She attested to the fact rape victims are almost always failed by the justice system and backed it up with sobering figures.
However, there are concerns that these new plans are not ambitious enough to make an immediate difference and that more is needed to combat the issue at hand.
Changes and Reforms
The review outlines plans to: better support victims; implement new data-driven methods of investigating rape; deliver more prosecutions while ensuring a fair trial, and mandates longer sentences for convicted rapists. The government is aiming to return to 2016 levels by the end of this parliament and will publish regular scorecards on how they are doing for the first time. The review sets out aims for what will be delivered in the next 6, 12, and 24 months.
This is a good and hard place to start reform, as the justice sector has consistently been cited as one of the most challenging points when responding to violence against women and girls – one of the reasons for this is because having positive initial contact with police is important for victims and when that is not present, it makes it all the more difficult for women to trust the system and stay the course of justice.
This in turn leads to fewer prosecutions, the review stated that in 57% of all adult rape cases the victim is unable to pursue the case as they often feel unsupported in a system that doesn’t meet their needs. Many victims have also reported feeling as if they could not heal while going through the justice process as it often made them relive their trauma in difficult ways. All of these concerns were addressed and steps towards improved high -quality support for victims were outlined.
More to be Done
All over the world, there is a call for better responses to gender-based violence. This year the UN Women partnered with the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime and the International Association of Women Police to launch a handbook on gender-responsive police services for women and girls subject to violence.
It makes for an incredibly insightful and instructive read for the police workforce, touching on areas such as: “gender-responsive police investigations; prevention; intersectionality; survivor-centred approaches; promoting positive masculinities; coordination; institution-building; and emerging issues such as online and ICT-facilitated violence against women and girls.” Some of these topics were not addressed in the end-to-end review and may be a good guideline to inform the government’s next steps regarding these issues.
This focus on the singular and horrific act of rape is a bit worrying, as no mentions have been made of plans towards curbing sexual assault and harassment, more attention needs to be paid to these acts- 86% of women have been harassed in public spaces and 9 out of 10 girls have experienced sexist name calling or been sent explicit videos. Former minister Caroline Nokes and Rose Caldwell, chief executive of Plan International UK have urged the government to review legal gaps regarding sexual harassment. The government will be implementing a new online tool “streetsafe”, a platform where women and girls can report areas where they’ve felt unsafe and why.
Discourse and Support
While the government can take steps towards combating the present issue, we as individuals must not forget that we too have the power to be allies to women in these situations. One of the ways we can do so is by showing support to victims of rape. They need all the strength you can give to stay the course and fight for justice – one in two victims who report their rape drop out of their cases. The process is often too difficult to go through and many feel unsupported, that is why it is vital you offer all the support you can.
You can also donate your time and resources to organizations that are committed to tackling rape, domestic violence, sexual assault and harrassment. Organizations such as End Violence Against Women for example, have published content to help people understand the impact of sexual harassment on BAME women.
Much of the discourse around sexual assault is led and championed by women, however male voices are also needed and vital to this fight, it is a shame that they are largely uncounted for in these discussions. More men speaking out on issues of sexual assault and rape amongst their peers and on their platforms is sure to create an environment of deeper accountability amongst men that makes a difference. Organizations such as White Ribbon UK understand this and are committed to working with men and boys to raise awareness and give them the tools to think through their behavior and the behavior of their peers and colleagues.
From the highest government official to the ordinary citizen, we all have a part to play in making society a safer place for women. When we are all pulling our weight, whether through the smallest or biggest actions of support, we can rest assured that a better day is on the horizon.