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27 March 2008

Rape should top the agenda

The Fawcett Society keeps the pressure on government and demands the Home Office takes tougher actio

By Clarissa Bottesini

A key women’s rights organisation is calling on the UK government to put rape at the top of the political agenda branding Labour’s record on on tackling sexual violence as “shameful”.

A week after a newstatesman.com campaign helped secure £1 million in extra funding for crisis-hit Rape Crisis centres in England and Wales, the Fawcett Society says urgent action is needed to tackle woefully low conviction rates.

The Fawcett Society presented Crime Reduction Minister Vernon Coaker with an open letter to his boss, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith calling for action to be taken to ensure every accusation of rape is investigated thoroughly by police.

It also urges proper investment in a national network of Rape Crisis centres to overcome the current post code lottery of support services.

Dr Katherine Rake, the Director of the Fawcett Society, said the letter, signed by more than 2,300 people shows a “critical mass feeling that improvements must be made to the treatment victims of rape receive”.

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Rake added: “We are calling on the Home Secretary to put rape at the top of the political agenda. Changes are needed now to ensure that rapists are caught and convicted and to properly fund the services that victims of rape want and need.”

The Fawcett Society also showed a banner outside the Home Office revealing that the rape conviction rate is only 5.7%, which Rake described as a “national scandal.”

“The lack of effective investigation of rape by police means that valuable opportunities to collect evidence are often lost early on in rape cases, and a quarter of reported rapes are not even registered as crimes,” Rake said.

The Fawcett Society is not alone in its campaigning to bring government attention to the rape crisis issue. Rape Crisis England and Wales has joined forces with the New Statesman website to bring attention to the issue as well. Last week Minister for Women Harriet Harman announced £1 million in emergency funding for Rape Crisis Centres.

Following the announcement of funding, Dr Nicole Westmarland, the National Chair of Rape Crisis, said the emergency funding was “highly significant” but noted that “in the longer term, increased and secure funding is clearly needed to prevent this crisis from arising again.”

According to the Fawcett Society, three quarters of local areas have no support services for rape victims and locations that do have Rape Crisis centres, there is an average waiting list of three months.

In July 2003 the government pledged to introduce a 24-hour helpline “as quickly as possible,” but this promise has not yet been fulfilled. Rake urged the government to look at the Scottish model of ringfenced funding for Rape Crisis services.

“Women who have been raped often have no support to turn to in their community, at a time when they may need it most,” Rake said.

“The government’s record on rape is shameful, and this issue must now be given the priority that it deserves,” she continued.

The Home Office defended its arguing that “reporting of rape has increased since 1997, with the number of rapes reported to police rising from 6,628 to 13,780 in 2006-7”. However the Home Office noted that sexual crime is not reported enough and less than 6 per cent of rapes result in a conviction.

A Cross-Government Action Plan on Sexual Violence and Abuse was published in April 2007.

According to the Home Office the plan seeks to “improve the criminal justice response to sexual violence and abuse.”

“We have rolled out specialist officers and specialist rape prosecutors across the country and we are rolling out guidance and training for police, prosecutors and barristers on serious sexual offences,” said a Home Office spokeswoman.

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