Leading article: Myths and outdated attitudes

Wednesday 16 April 2008 00:00

There is something rather depressing about yesterday's call by a coalition of women's rights groups and politicians for a public debate to challenge the myths and stereotypes concerning the crime of rape. What is depressing is not the message itself – there is no graver deficiency in our criminal justice system than its pitiful rape conviction rate – but the fact that such a demand for action still needs to be made in our times of supposed sexual equality.

The Fawcett Society, in its meeting yesterday with the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, demanded government action to educate juries and to improve police evidence-gathering procedures. Anti-rape campaigners have been calling for such reforms for years. Giving juries instruction on the likely behaviour of rape victims following an assault is plainly needed. Victims of sexual assault do not always run straight to the nearest police station and a failure to do so does not, as far too many juries believe, imply a false accusation. We also plainly need more competent evidence-gathering from the police if more effective prosecution cases are to be mounted. The police have become more understanding towards complainants in recent years, but there is still a culture in many police stations in which victims are routinely disbelieved.

In fairness, the Government recently pledged to double the number of sexual assault referral centres by 2011, which should help on the evidence-gathering front. And ministers are looking into giving juries more information about the psychological effects of rape on the victim. But, given the scale of the problem, these can be regarded only as baby steps.

What is required is an administration prepared to stride towards this challenge with real conviction. We must hope that Britain's first female Home Secretary will summon the political will to mount a complete overhaul of the present, failing system.

Yet this is not a problem that can be cracked by ministers alone. This is an issue for our society as a whole. Policemen and women come to their job with certain preconceptions; so do jurors. It is these preconceptions that are doing the damage. We need a shift in attitudes to rape similar to the overhaul in society's views on the acceptability of drink-driving. The pernicious belief that women who get drunk, or wear revealing clothing, somehow "bring it upon themselves" needs to be confronted and demolished. So does the widespread belief in the ubiquity of the malicious accusation.

Increasing the rape conviction rate will need more than technical reforms of our justice system; it requires nothing less than a revolution in society's attitudes towards women.

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