Evidence to government Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy

19 February 2021

Women Against Rape is a multi-racial self-help organisation of survivors and supporters, based in London with a national network throughout the UK.

Since 1976 WAR has provided support, advocacy and information to women and girls suffering rape or other sexual or domestic violence. It campaigns for justice, asylum, protection and compensation. It has won changes in the law such as getting rape in marriage recognised as a crime, and set precedents in court.

It helps survivors deal with the criminal justice system, family courts, immigration, and other matters, including women of diverse races, nationalities and ages, sex workers, trans women, and women with disabilities. As part of the Support Not Separation Coalition, WAR defends mothers and children against unwarranted separation after domestic abuse.

WAR makes this submission as an “expert by experience” organisation. In preparing it we asked women and men in our national network for their views and experiences, and include quotes from them.

The government must ensure that police and CPS prioritise and vigorously enforce the current laws against rape and domestic violence instead of dropping cases. Even senior police officers admit publicly that they lack the time, skills and dedicated teams to properly investigate rape. See interview with Sarah Crew, police rape lead for England and Wales, who says, “. . . if you can’t do it for rape, where the effect is life-changing, you could [ask]: what is the criminal justice system for?”

The consultation paper claims that domestic abuse costs £66 billion a year, and rape £4.8 billion. How is this money calculated and what protection or justice do we get for it? Our experience is that escape routes have been cut and compensation for rape is discriminatory and often denied.

Key facts on violence against women and girls

  • Rape has been practically decriminalised, with just 4% of reported cases being prosecuted (an even smaller proportion reach conviction). Almost half (45%) of rapes are committed by a partner or ex-partner.[i]
  • Two women are killed each week by a current or former partner. This figure rose under the COVID lockdowns, as did the number of children murdered by fathers and stepfathers. [ii]
  • 93% of perpetrators prosecuted for domestic abuse are men. Yet the government is making the Domestic Abuse Bill and policies gender-neutral. [iii]
  • 70-90% of family court cases feature domestic abuse yet less than 1% of child contact applications are refused – violent fathers nearly always get contact.[iv]
  • Rape survivors who claim asylum or apply to stay in the UK under immigration law are discriminated against. 88% of women supported by WAR to claim asylum were disbelieved by the Home Office. Yet, with our specialist help, 100% won their case on appeal.
  • 86% of austerity cuts have targeted women and children, hugely increasing our vulnerability to rape and DV and our inability to escape.

The criminal justice system must prioritise rape and DV

Decades of women’s campaigning brought many improvements in the law but the way investigations and prosecutions are now conducted means it’s almost impossible to get a conviction. While police have been given more powers and court professionals are now trained, justice remains elusive because the laws are not implemented.

Structural sexism combines with racism, class bias and other prejudices to deny us justice – even more so if we also have mental health issues or an uncertain immigration status, are homeless, and/or sex workers. Men know they can get away with violence as the state gives them impunity.

Two women are murdered every week (rising to three during some weeks of COVID lockdown) – often after many calls to the police for help met with inaction or worse. Yet no officer has ever been prosecuted or held to account for the bias or negligence that resulted in such deaths. We do not call for more police powers, as existing powers are not used accountably but used instead to intimidate and even arrest women reporting violence.

The appallingly low prosecution rate of 1.4% of reported rapes must be reversed. Prosecutions plummeted even further (they were already a shameful 6%) under the policy to investigate women’s digital media history – the average phone download consists of 35,000 pages of mostly irrelevant material. This is the latest update on the age-old criminal justice practice of using women’s sexual and medical histories to discredit our character. Decades of women’s campaigning succeeded in limiting, though not enough, what sexually history could be raised. Digital strip searching reversed this and must be tackled. The recent admonishment won by a legal challenge that the police must stop routine digital strip searches is far from enough.

The Met was successfully sued for refusing to investigate serial rapist John Warboys and the ruling was upheld by the Supreme Court despite a £1m legal appeal by the Met and government support.

A woman in our network whose daughter had brought a similar civil action using the Human Rights Act before the Warboys precedent said:

“What happened to my daughter wasn’t just wrong, but illegal. We got officers disciplined for misconduct, we got an apology from the director of public prosecutions. We brought a claim to show the police have a duty to properly investigate rape. If it hadn’t been for legal aid, we wouldn’t have been able to fight at all.”

When will they be held similarly accountable for refusing to investigate DV?

Women also face huge obstacles to getting a compensation award. The Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme still refuses an award to any victim with a criminal conviction, no matter how minor their crime. In 2018, 11% of applicants we helped had been refused or suffered a substantial reduction of compensation under this rule. Nationally, figures obtained by The Independent show at least 398 victims of sex abuse had been refused payments between January 2015 and July 2018 because they had been convicted of a crime.

A woman in her 30s who was sexual assaulted by her teacher when she was eight years old, was refused an award because of an unspent conviction – she had been given a community sentence for threatening her employer who had withheld a substantial amount of wages due. When we were working on her case with her, she told us:

“I didn’t commit a crime aged eight. The disbelief and injustice I faced has been just as traumatizing as the assault itself.”

Among other cuts to the Scheme in 2012, Parliament made rules even more punitive. Now, applicants can’t get compensation if they have any unspent criminal conviction, even for minor offences such as not paying a TV license, underage drinking, or a minor altercation – offences not serious enough to send someone to prison. Rape victims are punished twice: first by criminal proceedings against us, and then by the compensation scheme.

The government is blocking attempts to make the Domestic Abuse Bill effective. Instead of dealing with this pervasive injustice, the government is introducing new laws like the Domestic Abuse Bill, and blocking attempts by survivors, service providers and other experts to make this law effective. It is also introducing other laws (see below) which will lead to even more rape and abuse.

The Domestic Abuse Bill must acknowledge that victims of domestic abuse are overwhelmingly women and their attackers men. A gender-neutral law would undermine potential benefits of the Bill for women’s and children’s safety. It could make women’s access to justice and protection even more remote, as men would be even more likely to falsely call the police on women, take our children and get us evicted, with state backing.

Demands for justice and services from male survivors led to the government’s Position Statement in 2019 that sits alongside the VAWG strategy. It was part of the mass public outpouring – especially by those raped as children and those who’d been “in care” – that followed the 2012 Savile revelations. The floodgates were finally opened after years of disbelief, dismissiveness and in some cases even the prosecution of some of those of us who reported.

The Position Statement clearly states that the attackers of boys and men are overwhelmingly male, just like the attackers of girls and women. But subsequent policies and legislation like the Domestic Abuse Bill omit this crucial fact, and are being hijacked by the right-wing men’s lobby which wants to keep violent men in charge of women and children in the family. To conceal gender in domestic violence legislation undermines many of the protections women have won, and reinstates men’s power to rape and beat women, children – and other men and boys – with impunity.

The UK is a signatory to international treaties and conventions that recognise that sexual and domestic violence are gender-based violence. The Istanbul Convention requires states to recognise ‘the gendered dynamics, impact and consequences of these forms of violence and [operate] within a gender equality and human rights framework.’

Other draft legislation will enable and encourage serious violence. The Criminal Human Intelligence Sources Bill (nicknamed Spy Cops Bill) has been rushed through Parliament despite an ongoing Public Inquiry. The Inquiry has begun to uncover the infiltration into mainly left-wing community organising by police spies, and having sex with women campaigners, even in some cases having children – serious abuses which the women have called rape. This dangerous legislation will enable state agents to get undercover informers to rape and murder with impunity. WAR lobbied Parliament against this Bill with a statement signed by over 50 diverse organisations including the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers, the Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union and community organisations of women, disability rights, Black and environmental campaigns. Many other organisations also campaigned against it. We collectively represent thousands.

Its twin legislation, the Overseas Operations Bill, would also grant impunity to British forces committing serious crimes (excluding sexual offences) in other countries.

Action points

  • The police and CPS must record crimes properly; promptly gather forensic and witness evidence; charge appropriately and prosecute. They must not put pressure on the woman to retract, accuse her of lying, nor prioritise investigating the woman for committing some kind of crime. End the digital strip search – the practice of scanning a victim’s entire digital history, and of trashing her in court using her sexual or medical history.
  • The police and CPS must stop prosecuting rape and domestic violence separately when they are committed by a perpetrator against one woman.
  • The Domestic Abuse Bill must recognise that most victims are women and girls, and perpetrators are overwhelmingly men; protect mothers and children in family courts and stop forcing children into contact with violent fathers; provide resources for victims; end the ‘no recourse to public funds’ rule which denies women with uncertain immigration status access to existing support.
  • The Spy Cops Bill must be withdrawn because it decriminalises rape and other violence by undercover agents. The Overseas Operations Bill must be withdrawn because it decriminalises other crimes.

Family courts must protect women and children not perpetrators

WAR is active in the Support Not Separation Coalition. We are in contact with hundreds of mothers and other primary carers, and children, family law professionals, organisations and individuals.

“All three children have suffered with anxieties, having to deal with multiple professionals, sleep issues, behaviour issues. They are often visibly upset, angry and frustrated when having to meet with the social worker on a weekly basis. They feel that they are not being listened to when they say they do not want to see their father.”

Family courts are enabling abusive fathers to continue their reign of terror against women and children. Mothers are regularly having their children removed after domestic violence and given to their abuser. Bias against mothers and children was confirmed in a recent MOJ Harm Review which found a pro-contact culture. Uncaring and violent men are the most likely to pursue women through the courts as their priority is not the welfare of the children but fury at losing control over their ex-partners. They use the family courts to intimidate and bully by asserting their demands, and to avoid criminal prosecution. A common tactic is to accuse mothers of parental alienation – that a child’s wishes were corrupted by a hostile mother.

“I left an abusive relationship but I am still living in fear. I am being coerced by the family court system which is supposed to protect me and my two young children. I have been called obstructive by the judge for making a statement to the police. I feel like a criminal because of father’s allegations of parental alienation and breaching court orders.”

Children from working-class communities, many of whom are children of colour and/or immigrant, are 10 times more likely to end up in ‘care’; 50% of children in custody have been in ‘care’. The threat of a court battle to take their children into care is used by Councils to dissuade destitute mothers from asking for Section 17 help from Social Services.

“When a social worker told the children that the police could come and take them away from me because they refused to see their father, they were devastated. Whatever you think of me, why would you do that to children? You are breaking their spirit, making sure they are torn completely so that they submit.”

Action points

  • Stop the presumption of contact. Children must not be forced into unwanted contact with violent uncaring fathers.
  • Stop taking children from mothers who are victims of domestic violence. Mothers are children’s first protectors; children who are separated from their primary carer are deprived of protection and further traumatised.
  • Stop the use of ‘parental alienation’ in the family courts by fathers accusing mothers of lying in order to deflect and deny their violence.
  • Take away our poverty not our children! Use Section 17 to provide resources to families who are poor, rather than take their kids away.
  • Remove judges who ignore legal definitions of violence, refuse to hear evidence, or disregard it.
  • Reinstate legal aid.

Insecure immigration status makes women vulnerable to violence

There is a deliberate policy of destitution against asylum-seekers and other immigrants going back decades. Destitution among women is particularly hidden as they are less likely to be “street homeless” because of fear of violence. In one study, 35% of destitute homeless women asylum seekers in the UK reported being raped. Instead, women tend to rely on family, friends, acquaintances and strangers for a roof over their head and the basic necessities. This dependence makes them vulnerable to sexual and domestic violence.

“I have four lovely children who suffer alongside me. We only have a roof over our head because of a friend. I have to beg for money and get food from charities. The children haven’t seen fresh food for four weeks.”

The government’s asylum procedures are discriminatory against women, over 70% of whom have been found to have suffered rape in the countries they fled. It is widely accepted – including by the Home Office – that rape is more difficult to speak about than other kinds of violence. But procedures not only fail to recognise and act on these obstacles, they exploit them to dismiss, detain and deport victims often back to horrific violence. Mothers take a double hit because there is invariably no consideration by the Home Office of children’s need for and dependence on their care. With WAR’s help and invaluable support and encouragement from the All African Women’s Group, with whom we work closely, victims have won 100% of their appeals against Home Office refusals over the past three years.

Even when women win their legal cases, some are denied access to public funds and remain victims of or become vulnerable to domestic violence. A government that makes women and girls deliberately destitute cannot claim to be protecting women from domestic violence.

“I left my country because my husband beat and nearly killed me. He was powerful and had friends in the police so was protected. My partner in the UK knew I had no rights in the UK and quickly turned violent. If I could get to a refuge I could leave but instead I’m trapped with a man who knows he can do what he likes. I tread on eggshells every day to avoid firing him up.”

Action points

  • End destitution and detention of asylum seekers.
  • End the No Recourse to Public Funds Policy, so that all women can access support and resources.
  • Provide women who flee to the UK from domestic violence or rape with resources and protection to be able to recover in safety, in accordance with the Convention Against Torture.
  • Meet Istanbul Convention obligations towards victims “irrespective of immigration status”.
  • Ensure policies and decision-making protect the rights of the child.

End violence against Sex Workers

  • Prostitution should not be cited as an example of violence against women and girls. It is not rape, and implies that sex workers cannot tell the difference between consenting sex and rape.
  • If the government wants to decrease prostitution and sexual exploitation, it must deal with poverty so women and girls have choices. We support the English Collective of Prostitutes demand to decriminalise prostitution for safety’s sake. Criminalising women and/or their clients increases stigma and discrimination. It puts women at greater risk as violent men know they are even more likely to get away with rape and even murder if the victim is a sex worker.

Poverty makes women and children vulnerable to violence

Violence has to be viewed in the context of the life conditions of women and children and the policies that help or hinder our protection. WAR has helped many traumatised women through the benefits obstacle course, and campaigns for benefits as key to safety. Under the policy of austerity, 86% of cuts to benefits, wages and resources targeted women; single mothers are 75% of those impoverished by the benefit cap; mothers are not included in emergency coronavirus packages and 71% of those who asked to be furloughed were refused. The government made women poorer and even more vulnerable to domestic and sexual violence, and cut women’s escape routes by slashing benefits, social housing, legal aid, advice lines, and refuges.

Three million essential workers, mostly women, earn poverty wages for precarious work on temporary or zero-hour contracts. Many putting their lives at risk delivering vital care during this pandemic, are the lowest-paid women. In health and social care, Black and immigrant women are hugely over-represented.

The policy of destitution against immigrants has been rolled out against all women and children. For example, benefit sanctions and the delays in paying Universal Credit, have left many women with no income, or living below the poverty line, sometimes for months. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s 2018 report found 1.5 million people destitute in the UK. It is worse since COVID, now almost 5 million children live in poverty.

Many survivors cannot get appropriate mental health treatments on the depleted NHS. Merely training officials to spot violence is not going to address violence.  In the absence of resources and help, our experience is that state agents such as social workers tend to prioritise policing mothers and punitively removing our children.

Action points

  • Extend Carer's Allowance and introduce a Care Income to all women caring for children or other relatives. Without money we can’t leave violent men.
  • Abolish benefit sanctions. Increase all benefits, so that economic dependence on men, and the stress of poverty as a factor in violence is reduced.
  • Extend disability benefit rights for survivors of violence, without cruel and degrading treatment, such as sanctions.
  • Abolish No Recourse to Public Funds which deprives immigrant rape survivors of benefits and resources for recovery.
  • Stop and scrap Universal Credit. In the meantime, increase the amount, and end delays. End the single payment to head of household, which makes women financially dependent on a partner, a recipe for violence. Scrap the two-child limit with its humiliating rape exemption.
  • Scrap the total benefit cap which puts women and children in danger by penalising us if we flee to private rented housing.
  • Fund emergency and permanent housing for women fleeing violence beginning with the established network of refuges and social housing, including for women in rural areas. Housing benefit is essential to the survival of refuges.

[i] https://crimestoppers-uk.org/domesticabuse

[ii] ONS 2018

[iii] ONS 2018

[iv] Domestic Abuse, Child Contact & the Family Courts – All Party Parliamentary Group on Domestic Violence Parliamentary Briefing 2018