Fire up the Quattro! Women’s rights are going back to the 1980s

Let’s support the survivors before protecting the perpetrators.

Nick Clegg said in the Commons last week that the government was facing ‘difficult dilemmas’ over perhaps the most controversial part of the coalition agreement, granting anonymity to defendants in rape cases. This has been a Lib Dem policy since 2006. Only 1 in 20 rapes are reported. Only 5% of all rapes reported to the police lead to a conviction, more than half of the cases that make it to trial result in the suspect being found guilty. The odds are already in favour of the perpetrator, why must they be further advantaged?

Defendant anonymity existed briefly from 1976 until it was abandoned in 1988 following a series of deeply critical reports. It was brought in when rape within marriage was not a crime, when it was standard judicial practice to require a witness to corroborate the story; one woman’s testimony could not be believed. This was an era where the establishment was overwhelmingly male and largely sexist. It deterred complainants, undermined survivors and impeded justice. Resurrecting it will undo all the work of women’s lobbies, charities, and criminal justice agencies who have ardently encouraged more women to bring allegations to the police.

Police and barristers are not, for the most part, advocating anonymity. They know releasing a name has led to the successful prosecution of rapists such as John Worboys. Seventy women felt able to come forward and testify against him, securing a conviction. Even Cameron’s suggestion to limit anonymity to between charging the accused and the case starting would prevent other women contributing to the prosecution. Women often expect to be treated badly by the justice system, to be treated like they’re on trial as the defence trawl through their sexual history, their alcohol intake and the clothes they were wearing. If the concern for innocent until proven guilty is so fundamental, this must also apply to the complainant.

Figures show that the number of false allegations for rape are no higher than for other crime, so why protect these men? It simply perpetrates the myth that women are liars. A vindictive minority is taken to be the norm. Treating rape as exceptional vilifies women. It is surely just as damaging to be accused of child abuse or hate crimes. As Harriet Harman said, ‘To single out rape defendants sends a very powerful message to juries in rape cases that the rape victim is not to be believed. It sends a devastating message to rape victims that uniquely of all victims they are not to be believed.’

Ms Harman is right, though her lexical choice is questionable. To label a woman ‘victim’ is to disempower her. To define her by what happened. She is  not a victim, she is a survivor.

It is a tragic irony that a law which primarily concerns a crime against women may be amended in a manner beneficial to men. This is symptomatic of the political establishment’s failure to understand and support women’s issues. Cuts to rape crisis centres are a damaging indication of a negligent attitude towards survivor support. From 68 there are now only 38 in the country which are gravely underfunded with a budget of just £3.5m between them. Before we improve the situation for men, let’s ensure that the system works for women. It is essential that the coalition honours its commitment to providing long-term, sustainable funding to rape crisis centres. It is vital that conviction rates are improved. It is imperative that survivors are supported.

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