If the government wants to increase rape prosecutions it needs to actually listen to survivors

I can’t imagine any other instance in which, to fix a problem, you wouldn’t speak to those directly affected. Survivors are owed the time and effort from a system that is failing them on just about every level

Lizzy Dening
Saturday 19 June 2021 17:53 BST
Policing minister Kit Malthouse says rape review is ‘obviously a shocker’

This week the government has released its review into the UK’s pitiful rape prosecution rates, issuing an apology to the thousands of survivors let down by the current system, and promising to do better.

While, in the face of such staggering failures, any change is welcome, there’s a feeling among charities and campaign groups that it’s just not enough. One such criticism – that the review failed to adequately include survivor experiences – seems particularly significant to those of us who work directly with survivors.

In March, two years after the review’s launch, a letter was reportedly sent to the government from groups including the End Violence Against Women Coalition (Evaw), Imkaan and Rape Crisis, asking for assurances that survivor “experiences are central to, rather than wholly excluded from, the review”. On the review’s release, Andrea Simo, Evaw’s director, has said: “Unfortunately these recommendations reflect this failure to hear from survivors themselves.”

Sadly this attitude will come as no surprise to most survivors. Time and again it’s demonstrated that their experiences aren’t important when it comes to the judicial system. It’s surely one of the reasons that prosecution and conviction rates are so low in the first place; victims and survivors aren’t given the space to share their experiences in any meaningful way. The search for justice is apparently more about trawling their phone records and “reading between the lines” of their statements, than actually taking the time to listen to what they have to say.

My work collecting accounts from survivors as part of an award-winning project, Survivor Stories, was born from a desire to offer a safe space for those stories to be held. I hope to demonstrate that, while there are sometimes similarities in people’s experiences, there are actually a million different ways for sexual violence to look.

Whether it’s the relationship to the perpetrator, the age, race, gender or sexuality of the survivor, the situation they found themself in, or how they responded in its aftermath, these are stories that are complex and deeply personal. It’s impossible to even begin to understand sexual violence without a volume of accounts – let’s not forget the numbers involved here, with around one in five women and one in 10 men experiencing some form of sexual violence since the age of 16.

A further, valid, criticism of the report by charities is that not enough is being done to support minority groups and their access to justice, so their input should be particularly valuable. I can’t imagine any other instance in which, to fix a problem, you wouldn’t speak to those directly affected. How can meaningful change happen without consultation?

I don’t want to detract from the importance of involving advisers such as Emily Hunt, who is a survivor, but in these cases you’re only getting one individual experience of sexual violence, as unique as a fingerprint.

Apart from the wilful ignorance at play, what message does it send to police, judges and jurors that even now, when attempting to improve outcomes for survivors and take attention – briefly – away from the perpetrators, no one can be bothered to listen to them? No wonder we’re in such a mess.

It’s not enough to pay lip service by speaking to a handful of survivors. Yes, it’s a big piece of research, but the scale of the solution reflects the scale of the problem, and with prosecution rates at an all-time low, it’s time to put in the work. Survivors are owed that time and effort from a system that is failing them on just about every level. They deserve to shape the solution.

Rape Crisis offers support for rape and sexual abuse on 0808 802 9999 in England and Wales, 0808 801 0302 in Scotland, or 0800 0246 991 in Northern Ireland.

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