The Rape Crisis crisis

Nine Rape Crisis Centres have closed in the last five years, 69% describe themselves as unsustainabl

‘Rape Crisis’ – what vision does that conjure up to you? Weeping, hysterical women with torn clothing and mascara running down their face?

In fact, Rape Crisis is a bit of a misnomer – most of the women and girls who contact us have lived with their experiences of rape for many years before they feel able to pick up the phone and tell anyone about it. And its not ‘just’ rape – we are contacted about a wide range of different forms of sexual violence, including those that no-one wants to talk about: women and girls who are forced to have sex with animals; women and girls who are forced to have sex with their brothers; women and girls who were raped when they were babies and toddlers; women and girls whose videos and pictures of abuse exist forever on internet sites making money for abuse profiteers.

Instead, the term Rape Crisis probably best describes the state of the movement at the moment. New research, to be launched tomorrow by Rape Crisis and the Women’s Resource Centre, lists a catalogue of funding failures. It describes the series of hoops Rape Crisis Centres have to jump through, for example the centre that receives its annual funding of £77,000 from a total of 14 separate funders. On the other hand, it describes centres with no or few funders - the centre that had to close for part of the year because it had no income at all and another with just £306 for the year.

Scarily, 69 per cent of centres described themselves as ‘unsustainable’ in the future. Six centres reported situations where they had not been able to pay their staff – but where these staff had continued to work without pay during these periods of financial crisis. But despite this remarkably high level of staff dedication, nine Rape Crisis Centres have closed in the last five years. The research concludes that while Rape Crisis has always been marginalised and suffered from underinvestment, that the crisis point is here, and it’s happening right now.

The real problem of course lies in what all these figures mean. Last year Rape Crisis had almost 135,000 contacts. This is just the tip of the iceberg; we know there are many more women who try to access our services. The longer helplines stay open, the more calls they receive. Telephone line monitoring shows that the women who manage to get through are in the minority. Imagine receiving an engaged tone after lifting up the phone ready to talk about being raped or being told there is a long waiting list for some services. Support for women and girls to rebuild their lives after rape should be a right, not a privilege determined by a postcode lottery.

It doesn’t take a genius to work out the problem. But - and here is the really good news - nor does it take a genius to work out the solution.

In 1997 New Labour put violence against women on the public agenda alongside an elevation in the ‘status’ of victims and witnesses of crime generally. The increase of women in government, appointment of pro-feminist ministers and support from femocrat ‘insiders’ has led to a much needed shift in the way violence against women is understood within Whitehall. A strong policy message has been articulated from the top: that violence against women is not acceptable in modern society and will not be tolerated. Although rape has not received the attention that other forms of violence against women have (described by Liz Kelly last week as ‘the forgotten issue’), attitudes have undoubtedly shifted. Students in my classes find it hard to understand the political climate that allowed men to rape their wives. Many of the women in key government roles today would probably accept the feminist label.

The good news then is that the hard work is done. Rape Crisis has been consulted, researched, visited and evaluated. We’ve been invited to launches, meetings, forums, committees and conferences. The policies, strategies and workplans are in place. We know what works and what women want. Our views are generally listened to and taken seriously. Except when it comes to money.

This is the point at which whoever we’re talking to starts to get that faraway, glazed look in their eyes. Ministers and officials are sick to the back teeth of hearing that our sector is massively under funded. To be perfectly honest, we’re sick of saying it. But we guarantee that we will never to stop saying it until it is fixed.

We are at a unique point in history in terms of partnership working, but without funding for services none of it means anything. If there is a serious commitment – in reality not rhetoric – then why are Rape Crisis Centres scrabbling around for spare coppers every March? Why are 79% of grants for one year or less? Why are Rape Crisis Centres closing down? The hard work is done; it is now time for the government to put its money where its mouth is. It’s been done across the border and Scotland have committed to a Rape Crisis specific ‘ring fenced’ fund that includes funding to establish new centres where there are no existing ones.

We issue this plea to the Home Office, Ministry of Justice and Department of Health: help women and girls access the services they need by placing £5 million in a Rape Crisis specific fund, and do it now while there is still a Rape Crisis movement to save.

Dr Nicole Westmarland is chair of Rape Crisis (England and Wales) and a rape expert at Durham University