Enough talking, time for action
The UK's 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.
This blog was first published as a Birmingham Perspective with the University of Birmingham.