Emergency funding should start the process of remedying an emergency. It is with relief, therefore, that we hear Harriet Harman, Minister for Women, announce new funding of up to £1 million, dedicated in part to keeping rape crisis centres open. The New Statesman has recently joined with women’s organisations to call for such an initiative.
The crisis has been brewing for years. It is clear that something is terribly wrong with the way rape is reported and prosecuted in this country. Most rape victims never report the attack to the police. When they do, their accusations are often met with scepticism and inertia. In Europe, only Ireland has a lower conviction rate than Britain. The one place where victims might expect to find professional yet sympathetic help – Rape Crisis centres – have been disappearing. In 1984, there were 68 Rape Crisis centres in England and Wales; this has now plummeted to only 38. Women in Suffolk and Bedfordshire might want to reflect on the fact that there is no rape crisis centre in their county. This new funding will clearly help remedy this dire situation.
It is an important step – but it must be simply the beginning. Recently, the Metropolitan Police’s assistant commissioner John Yates has bravely stepped forward to admit what many women have been saying for years: "police are contributing to the 'appalling' conviction rate in rape cases because officers too often fail to take alleged victims seriously enough and settle for mediocrity in their inquiries." Evidence is lost or simply not collected. Sexist attitudes are endemic in some police jurisdictions.
Supporting rape crisis centres will encourage more women to come forward to report attacks. But if it is to translate into fairer trials and the successful prosecution of offenders, specialist training of policemen and women in dealing with alleged rape victims is urgently needed. The Minister for Women has taken the first step in remedying a disgraceful situation: we can only hope that this emergency funding is only the start of longer-term, more comprehensive reforms.
Joanna Bourke is Professor of History at Birkbeck College and author of Rape: A History from the 1860s to the Present, Virago, 2007.
To read more reactions to the £1 million funding secured for Rape Crisis Centres click here.