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28 November 2007

Rape victims face postcode lottery

How help for women who are victims of violence and rape depends on where they live, writes Prof. Liz

By Liz Kelly

What would you suggest to a female friend, family member or work colleague who was raped or in an abusive relationship?

We are all too familiar with the appallingly low conviction rates for these offences, but we assume that at the very least women can access support from women’s organisations.

But, shockingly, this is far from the case. Map of Gaps, a report published today by the End Violence Against Women Campaign (EVAW) and the Equality and Human Rights Commission, presents a series of maps showing graphically how women face a postcode lottery in their access to specialised violence against women support services.

What’s the problem?

We might wish to think that violence against women is rare in our society, but the stark fact is that every year three million women across the UK suffer rape, trafficking, harassment, forced marriage, domestic violence or some other form of gender-based violence – usually committed by a man they know.

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And we shouldn’t forget that there are many, many more women who have been abused in the past, either as an adult or a child, and who seek support to deal with its legacies.

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Specialised provision, such as domestic violence refuges and Rape Crisis Centres, are vital services that help women deal with the immediate crisis, support them through the justice and other bureaucratic systems and enable them to move on with their lives.

Yet in many parts of the UK, these services are patchy at best and non-existent at worst. And this already poor situation is likely to get worse as new commissioning processes are likely to favour large generic funders rather than small resource-poor women-specific services.

We have already witnessed a tide of closures in the voluntary women’s sector, and many other services are fragile. At the same time, most are creaking under the weight of demands for support they struggle to meet.

Map of Gaps paints a dismal picture:

  • A third of local authorities in the UK have no specialised support services.
  • Most women in the UK have no access to a Rape Crisis Centre.
  • Less than one in ten local authorities have specialist services for ethnic minority women that would address forced marriage, female genital mutilation and crimes in the name of honour amongst other issues.
  • Almost a third of local authorities have no domestic violence services.

    What’s the solution?

    The best story to be told is in Scotland where services are distributed more equally. In fact Scotland is the only part of the UK where Rape Crisis Centres are actually expanding rather than closing! The reason for this is very simple; the Scottish Government is developing a strategic approach to ending violence against women that includes a core commitment to funding specialised services.

    EVAW and the Equality and Human Rights Commission are calling for national governments and local authorities to take urgent action to stem the tide of closures and ensure national coverage of services so that all women have access to the vital support they need.

    Indeed, the Commission has said this will be a key test for how they judge whether government departments and local authorities are meeting their legal obligations under the Gender Equality Duty, a new law requiring all public bodies to promote equality between women and men.

    We believe that women deserve quality support services and indeed under international law they have a right to such services. The current situation is simply too costly, not just to individual women but also to society more broadly. We must end the postcode lottery by bridging the gaps.

    For more information go to End violence against women or www.equalityhumanrights.com.