IT IS easy to feel hopeless when you consider the extent of sexual violence against women in Britain. A survey published on Tuesday shows that one in four women in the U.K. believes that her drinks have been spiked on nights out, and only one in 20 feels safe on the streets. It is easy to feel that despite all the campaigning and consciousness raising, nothing is changing. The problem is that men are not being held to account for their crimes; look at the telling figure that only one in 20 of reported rapes results in a conviction.
Yet it is possible not to feel entirely hopeless. We are at a peculiar moment for women’s equality in the U.K., a tense time in which forces of progress are facing a push to prevent change. The confrontation is as clear when it comes to justice for victims of sexual violence as it is in every other sphere.
The case that received a lot of publicity a couple of weeks ago — in which a judge halted a rape trial before the jury had heard all the evidence because, he said, “drunken consent is still consent” — shows how very difficult it is for women to see justice done. The judge seemed not to have taken on board the force of recent legislation (the U.K.’s Sexual Offences Act 2003), which does lay down that if a woman says she was raped while unconscious or stupefied, including through drink, the responsibility shifts to the man to explain why he thought she consented.
But once that case was publicised by Vera Baird QC, anger about it was voiced in such a range of places — from the tabloids to the glossy magazines and The Guardian — that it looks as if the law will be clarified. Mike O’Brien, the Solicitor-General, is looking into the possibility of reforming the law to send out a much clearer message that rape is still rape even if the woman is drunk.
Of course, the problems do not just lie with the law, but with those who practise law and with juries’ attitudes. Another woman whose case was recently halted by the judge told me: “You’ve gone through so much just to be able to talk about it, for me it took so much courage. It was really a nightmare to go through it. Then when the judge decides to throw it all away, it is like a second agony.”
Given the current tension between progress and backlash, we need to keep up the pressure on the authorities. New initiatives are needed to close the gap between the numbers of women coming forward and the numbers finding justice. Specialist training for prosecutors is a necessity, since this has helped ensure more convictions in other countries.
It is also time to remember that women who are vulnerable in other ways are particularly hard done by when it comes to finding protection from rape. Although some progress may have been made in this country in helping raped women to feel they should be able to speak out and demand justice, women who come here as asylum seekers after facing sexual violence in their own countries face harsh treatment and a routine culture of disbelief.
Right now, a number of women are on hunger strike in the Yarl’s Wood detention centre in southern England. Many are rape survivors. Enid Ruhango, currently in Yarl’s Wood, was raped in Uganda by soldiers looking for her husband. She has been detained for six months, and went on hunger strike for more than 30 days in the summer even though she is HIV positive. “I came here to save my life, so I wanted to die here rather than to be sent back to my country,” she told me on the telephone from Yarl’s Wood.
In Yarl’s Wood, Enid met another woman, Sophie Odogo, who was raped while in prison in Uganda. Sophie also went on hunger strike in the summer, and her experiences in detention in the United Kingdom seem to have precipitated a mental breakdown. She remains in detention although she is clearly mentally ill, and cannot even talk to supporters on the telephone. Enid told me: “She has lost her mind here in the centre. I used to be able to talk with her, she even helped me. But now she is totally confused.”
These women are being treated like criminals rather than victims. Detention without trial in any circumstances is an abuse of human rights, and when it is used against mentally and physically vulnerable women who have come here to seek refuge from sexual violence, it is all the more horrific. The past 20 years may have seen greater understanding for some women who have been raped, but the suffering of others is still going completely unheard and unseen. It’s time for that to end: time for us to listen to all women who are asking for justice. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004
(Natasha Walter is the author of The New Feminism.)
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