Rape has become a trivialised crime

It is hard for women to argue that rape is a grim crime, and those who are affected by it may be in need of help
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The Independent Online

This Government always talks great guns about how it cares, above all, for the victims of crime. "Victims, witnesses and communities", it said last week, should be at the centre of the criminal justice system. The same ideal was put forward as the reason for the proposed reforms of the laws on sex offences, which are intended to "re-balance the system in favour of victims".

This Government always talks great guns about how it cares, above all, for the victims of crime. "Victims, witnesses and communities", it said last week, should be at the centre of the criminal justice system. The same ideal was put forward as the reason for the proposed reforms of the laws on sex offences, which are intended to "re-balance the system in favour of victims".

Such rhetoric is pretty rich, coming from a government that has watched over a decline in support for those victims. In the White Paper on sex offences, the Government mentioned, proudly, that it was considering "whether there are ways in which further support might be provided to the victims of sexual crime". From such words, you could hardly help but assume that there must be money already earmarked for supporting such victims across the country. Surely that would be the very least these much-loved victims might expect: a helpline in their area if they wanted to talk to someone about the fact that they had been raped, say, or a place where they could go to get some counselling.

Is that such a big deal? Even in these days of shrinking funds for public services, this is the kind of service that comes pretty cheap. It doesn't seem to be such a problem for other countries to provide it – in Ireland, for instance, the government has committed itself to funding those services. Isn't it slightly embarrassing that those Catholics in the backwoods are prepared to support women who have been raped and abused, while our progressive politicians are still umming and ahhing about whether this is a really deserving cause?

Yet, since there is still no statutory requirement for central or local government in England and Wales to fund such centres, they are stumbling from crisis to crisis. The Government does give a grant to the central body of the Rape Crisis Federation, but the organisation is not required to use this to fund local centres, which still have to rely on on-again, off-again grants from local authorities and charities.

"The situation is not any rosier than it ever was," Helen Jones told me yesterday. She should know, because she's one of those heroic women who has been working in the scene for a decade – from staffing an unpaid helpline to, now, sitting on the board of the Rape Crisis Federation. "I'd say that it was getting worse."

The idea that you should fund a central organisation to employ media workers, but not fund the local centres that support the traumatised women is a bizarre one. Where does that leave the women who actually need help? They just won't know until they need to ask for it whether or not there is anything available in their area. If they are in Brighton, Leeds or the west Midlands, for instance, where centres have recently lost their funding, they could be unlucky.

"I don't think it's very well understood by the general public that we aren't properly funded," says Helen Jones. "They get pretty angry if we don't answer the telephones immediately, or if we don't ring them back at once – which is understandable, but unfair."

It is rather unfair when you consider that nearly one in five of rape crisis centres operate on £5,000 per year or less. I suppose that must pay for a telephone line, and the rent of some crummy little room, but how can it pay for the time of the women who staff the telephone lines?

Another leading organisation in the field,Women Against Rape, has its back to the wall right now. This group helps over a thousand women every year, and it has led vital campaigns: it is credited, for instance, with leading the pressure for legislative reform to make rape in marriage a crime.

I have talked to many women over the years who have been supported by Women Against Rape. One such woman, Jeanette, was the subject of one of my recent columns because she was being denied asylum in Britain even though she had suffered persecution through gang rape at the hands of soldiers in Uganda.

Undoubtedly, if it hadn't been for the support she was able to access, Jeanette would have been deported long before I got to meet her; she would have been sent back to Uganda, and the soldiers who raped her.

"Because of the people helping me, maybe I can cope," she said to me. "If it wasn't for them, what would I do?" But Women Against Rape has recently seen its grant from local government slashed from just £26,000 to nothing at all. Perhaps some victims are more worthy of support than others, or perhaps the idea of supporting victims is a very nice one – unless it costs anything.

But I think that the Government knows that it can get away with starving such services of funds because it has become rather unfashionable to take the crime of rape too seriously. This is extraordinary, because until recently it seemed to be that one of the achievements of the women's movement was to expose just what serious repercussions rape could have.

Yet the way that many commentators in the media currently talk about rape fails to take account of the trauma that raped women can feel. Rape is now too often seen as a trivial thing, something that makes for scandal and gossip rather than anger and sadness.

We saw that very clearly in the way that commentators chose to react to Ulrika Jonsson's tale of date rape; one after another, commentators lined up to ridicule the idea that, even if she had been raped, Jonsson could have been so upset that she was unable to go to the police. If we are so callous about the feelings of this one woman, it is unsurprising, I guess, that we aren't pressing our government to help other women.

This growing opinion that rape is not a very serious crime was also evident in the way that commentators responded recently to the White Paper on sex offences. Most of the reforms on rape law hinge on the issue of consent, which is, of course, a tricky area to define, and nothing will make it less tricky. Still, the new attempts to clarify when a defendant may be stretching credibility when he says that he thought a woman consented seemed pretty uncontroversial.

For instance, in certain circumstances, such as if a woman is unconscious or abducted, the White Paper states that she is "most unlikely" to have given consent to sexual intercourse. In these particular circumstances, it will be for the defendant to show why he thought the victim did give consent.

Is that so outrageous? Yet to read some commentators on this subject, you might assume that for a man to have sex with an unconscious woman without having tried to find out whether she wanted sex is simply a good night out.

In a culture in which rape can be so trivialised, it is hard for women to argue that rape is a grim crime and those who are affected by it may well be in need of help. Obviously, we should not drift back into some neo-Victorian mindset of seeing all women as natural victims of men's overwhelming power. But the greater danger right now seems to be that women may be seen as second-class citizens whose abuse need not be taken seriously.

And if we do think that rape should be taken seriously, the least we can do, when this Government keeps talking about how much it cares for the victims of crimes, is to ask it to put a little money where its mouth is.

n.walter@btinternet.com

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