The government has failed women – we need deeds not just words to turn the tide on systematic rape failures
The Rape Review didn’t come close to meeting the scale of the challenge in the criminal justice system. We need a tangible, urgent plan to address what has effectively become the decriminalisation of rape in this country.
When the long-awaited rape review was published last week, I actually held out hope. Not because the government had given me any reason to, but because I favour the old adage that when you hit rock bottom the only way is up. And I think the near decriminalisation of rape is about as low as it gets.
Scrolling through the 70-odd page report, it quickly became clear that this was not the landmark review I had been hoping for. I found no mention of the radical interventions or funding commitments needed to reverse the failures in our criminal justice system. What was proposed didn’t come close to meeting the scale of the challenge, and the lack of urgency that accompanied its findings was breath taking.
It is ludicrous that the review was conducted without the meaningful consultation of victims
Whilst the Minister for Justice may have briefly alluded to it, the report failed to acknowledge the impact of austerity on the policing and justice systems, and stopped short of calling for additional, immediate funding - surely the most obvious first step in what has become a national crisis. It called for a return to 2016-2017 levels of rape prosecutions (still painfully low at 5,190 prosecutions out of 41,616 cases - or 12%) without questioning if this is a worthy target.
Senior ministers have spoken about the deep shame they feel at the drop in court cases and treatment of women - from ‘digital strip searches’ to having their credibility questioned. I want to know where their shame is for consistently failing to make ending violence against women a political priority in the first place. The fact is, ignoring calls for a violence prevention strategy, choosing not to include migrant women in the Domestic Abuse Bill, and underfunding the criminal justice system are all political choices, made at the expense of women.
Organisations that specialise in ending violence against women and girls have rightly pointed out that recommendations of lengthy pilots and consultations does little more than kick the issue further down the road, as more and more women’s lives are adversely impacted and backlogs increase. It seems to me that trialing a pilot scheme is becoming a go-to response of this government. For example, in their response to frequent calls to include migrant women in the Domestic Abuse Bill - when they should be listening to calls for urgent, immediate action.
We need a radical shift of perspective if we are to tackle this problem at root, not just declarations of shame and apologetic rhetoric
If we want to ensure survivors are properly served by the criminal justice system in the future, we must listen and learn from those women who have been through that system. It is ludicrous that the review was conducted without the meaningful consultation of victims who could have offered unique insight into where immediate improvements can be made.
What we need is a dual approach - one that commits to the long-term, structural changes vitally needed to ensure our criminal justice system works for women, and a second for the immediate action that will make tangible differences for women who are going through the courts now.
One such action should be a significant investment in Independent Sexual Violence Advisers (ISVAs) and Independent Domestic Abuse Advisers (IDVAs), who safeguard women throughout the criminal justice process and advocate for their best interests.
The government suggestion is a boost of 700 - but this is a drop in the ocean when 9 out of 10 practitioners have reported increased demand in their services during Covid-19, leaving 41% unable to cope. Victims of sexual violence need much better access to mental health support and must have free legal advice provided to them from the very start of the process all the way through.
Long-term changes need to focus on prevention strategies, police training, and procedural overhauls, including some of the measures rightly set out in the review. We need a radical shift of perspective if we are to tackle this problem at root, not just declarations of shame and apologetic rhetoric. It simply isn’t good enough. We need to acknowledge, explicitly, and as an urgent matter of strategic concern, that violence against women and girls is a national threat - with costs and consequences that reverberate across society and transcend generations.
Apologies without subtantive action undermine any sense of sincerity that the government genuinely cares about reform, so I want to see a tangible, urgent plan to address what has effectively become the decriminalisation of rape in this country.
Our police and politicians need to go beyond simply managing violence against women and start preventing it. Contrition matters of course, but we need deeds not just words to turn the tide on systemic failure of this magnitude.
Mandu Reid is the leader of the British Women's Equality Party (WEP).
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.