Give rape crisis centres the support they deserve
In November last year I received a letter from a rape victim. I cannot imagine how difficult she found it to recount her experience, but I am grateful that she did. After detailing her ordeal, she told me ‘I have lost my life’.
The staff and volunteers of Britain’s rape crisis centres will have seen this sense of despair in countless rape victims. I have visited some of these centres and I am continually struck by the dedication and compassion of their staff and volunteers. In many cases it is these staff and volunteers that transform rape victims into rape survivors. Yet the survival of many rape crisis centres is in question itself. Despite their outstanding work, too many face uncertain funding and possible closure. They need more support.
Over the last 20 years there has been a steady decline in the number of rape crisis centres. Clearly this has not been due to a reduction in demand: between 1991 and 2004 the number of recorded crimes of rape in England and Wales rose by 247 per cent. The truth is that too many rape crisis centres have experienced funding difficulties and have been unable to survive. For large sections of the country they have simply become extinct: a recent report found that the majority of women in the UK have no access to one whatsoever.
That is why the Conservatives have announced proposals to give greater security and support to rape crisis centres. A significant problem is the lack of long-term stable funding, with funding decisions often made midway through the financial year – meaning that centres are forced to survive hand-to-mouth and often face the threat of imminent closure.
In July 2007, for example, crisis centres were informed that their grants from the Government’s Victims’ Fund would not be renewed for the next financial year. They were given only a few weeks’ notice of the decision. Rape Crisis has estimated that half of its centres could close within twelve months unless other sources of finance could be found immediately.
The Government has repeatedly pledged to give sustainable funding to the voluntary sector, yet the experience of organisations supporting victims of rape and sexual violence demonstrates that this promise has been broken. As a result, groups are forced to divert vital resources from service provision to fundraising. A Conservative government will replace annual funding decisions with three-year funding cycles, giving rape crisis centres financial stability and certainty, and the ability to plan ahead.
At the same time as supporting rape crisis centres and other voluntary sector organisations, we must also tackle the root causes of sexual violence. For example, surveys suggest that a surprisingly high number of young people think it is acceptable for a boy to ‘expect’ to have sex with a girl if the girl has been ‘flirtatious’. We need our schools to talk about consent when they teach sex education, and that is why a Conservative government will make consent a compulsory element of sex education. The Conservative Party’s Prison Reform Review will also look at why the length of fixed-term sentences for convicted rapists is falling in order to ensure that the length of sentence handed down for a rape is proportionate to the crime.
Rape is a complex and sensitive topic for politicians that must be approached in a thoughtful way. But it is clear that where organisations such as rape crisis centres provide effective support to the victims of sexual violence, they should be supported. It is time to reverse the trend of rape crisis centre closures, and it will start when the Government gives them the financial security they deserve.
Rt Hon Theresa May MP
Shadow Leader of the House of Commons and Shadow Minister for Women