When the government’s budget came out last month, there was a telling statistic: women will be hit twice as hard as men by austerity. The research, commissioned by MP and Labour leadership candidate found that direct taxes and social security cuts will take £9.6bn net a year from families – and £7bn of which will be from women.
And now, research by the Guardian has found that none of the Rape Crisis organisations in England and Wales have secured funding beyond March 2016. This is despite a 50 per cent increase in victims and survivors receiving ongoing support since 2014. Calls to Rape Crisis helplines have soared to 164,000 – an average of 3,000 a week. The funding crisis is partly to do with cuts to voluntary sector grants provided by local authorities. But the decision to devolve the distribution of the victim’s fund from the Ministry of Justice to the 41 police and crime commissioners in England and Wales last October has worsened the situation. And as many women’s rights charities, including Women’s Aid, Fawcett Society and Rape Crisis warned in May, cuts to state support will disproportionately affect women.
But in a country where at least 85,000 women are raped and 400,000 are sexually assaulted every year, this should be a national disgrace. The idea that 10,000 people – the vast majority of which will be women – could be waiting for more than a year to for counselling makes me feel sick. It can be very hard for victims and survivors of sexual assault to come forward for help; I know how hard it can be. It took me months to muster up the strength to ask for help, and I was lucky that I only had to wait a few weeks before I got the help that I desperately needed. In a society where we often lay the blame at the feet of the victim rather than the perpetrator, it is not easy to come forward to ask for help. And the last thing that victims and survivors need is to be turned away.
When I spoke to Pavan Amara, a student nurse and the founder of My Body Back project that aims to help women reclaim their body after sexual assault, it was clear that she was angry but not surprised. She said:
It’s really important that victims and survivors of rape and sexual assault have access to services. In my eyes, when survivors don’t have these specialist services provided for them, it’s just victim-blaming. Essentially, the government is saying, ‘this happened to you, and it’s up to your to sort it out’. For years, they haven’t taken violence against women and girls seriously. The reason I founded My Body Back was because these I noticed a gap in the services for women and these issues affect so much more than many people think. I know women who don’t go to cervical cancer screenings or STI testing because it reminds them too much of what they experienced.
Years after it was signed, the government has failed to ratify the Istanbul Convention, a pan-European convention on women and girls’ rights. The ratification of the convention would force the government to take women and girls’ rights seriously, and it is thought that this would be incompatible with spending cuts. For instance, under the convention, women would have a formal right to counselling after experiencing domestic violence or abuse.
The sad reality is that the government clearly doesn’t care about women and girls – because if they did, access to these specialist services that are needed by millions of women every year would be a top priority. As Amara articulates brilliantly, “It is shocking but I am not surprised. When has the government actually cared and listened to the needs of women?”