We believe the UK government is flouting its obligations under CEDAW, and future obligations under the Istanbul Convention in relation to Violence Against Women.
1. Refusal to prosecute rapists including violent partners
“In the 12 months to March 2013 there were about 10,000 recorded rapes of adults in England and Wales, and about 6,000 recorded rapes of children.
“Only 1,820 (18%) of those recorded rape allegations led to a ‘sanction detection’ in which an offender was charged or cautioned for the offence, and 1,423 (12%) of cases were ‘no crimed’1.”
It is disingenuous of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to claim a 60% conviction rate – they are only looking at the cases taken to court. The majority of cases are closed either by police or CPS without ever being taken to court, resulting in a 6.7% conviction rate of reported rapes. (If unreported rapes, the overwhelming majority, were taken into account, the conviction rate would be even lower.)
Recently, public shock at media headlines exposing serial rapists left unprosecuted for decades, have added to the pressure put by survivors and their organisations on the prosecuting authorities to change. They were found to have been dismissive and prejudiced, even threatening rape victims with prosecution to shut them up. Young girls in particular, raped by celebrities such as Jimmy Savile, or by groups of adult men, in many towns and cities, such as Oxford and Rochdale were treated appallingly by police, social services and the CPS. Care homes, churches and public schools have been exposed for harbouring sex offenders among their staff, who abused their position of authority, raping girls and boys for years with impunity. This has been acknowledged in the national media as the authorities' "widespread complicity in sexual abuse2".
What is being done to change this?
The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) has investigated London's specialist Sapphire rape units nine times in seven years – that is 19 officers disciplined, three dismissed, one imprisoned for fraudulently closing rape cases and another under investigation.
Last February an IPCC report revealed the Southwark (London) police policy to press women to withdraw or retract rape allegations. This “local standard operating procedure”, authorised by senior officers, increased the number of incidents that were classified as “no crime” and therefore increased the sanction detection rates for the unit by 25%-30%3.
This was also policy in five other London boroughs4.
In November, the Public Administration Select Committee heard evidence from a police whistleblower PC James Patrick, who exposed widespread police pressure on women to retract. Like rapists, they targeted the most vulnerable victims.
The IPCC further revealed that two senior officers involved in the case of serial sex offender Kirk Reid5 (thought to have assaulted between 80 and 100 women) were promoted, rather than disciplined6 . In our own case, taken to the IPPC and then to court by a girl raped in Southwark when she was 15 years old, the police commander who had prioritised car crime over rape investigations was also promoted (more details below).
In 2009 and 2012 we met the heads of Sapphire. We demanded they stop promoting bad officers as this set the tone for rape investigations and discouraged those officers who wanted to do a good job. We also opposed their proposal to prosecute rapists for offences other than rape and sexual assault – a way of downgrading sexual violence while using the reports of distressed victims to gather intelligence on unrelated matters.
Since more than half the rapes reported in London are by partners or ex-partners, we highlighted the police separation of rape from domestic violence as a major obstacle to getting convictions. Different units deal with rape and domestic violence, so the full picture of the violence suffered by the majority of victims remains hidden – as a result cases are dropped and prosecutions fail.
Two women a week are killed by partners or ex-partners. Despite police refusal to act in at least 50 murders investigated by the IPCC over six years, only one police officer has lost his job for negligence.
The 6 month time limit for bringing charges of common assault is routinely used by police and CPS not to prosecute domestic violence attackers. This limit should be dropped, but also charges of aggravated assault or grievous bodily harm rather than just common assault should be used more often in domestic violence cases. That they are not reflects the sexism, laziness and incompetence of the authorities in gathering relevant evidence such as medical records and witness statements, and providing adequate protection to the victim. We are working with a local woman left disabled after years of domestic violence who is taking legal action on this very point. She speaks for thousands.
Like many in positions of power, the police seem to resent accountability. They have responded to the demands of survivors and campaigners like ourselves by improving their PR rather than their performance, and drawing in the voluntary sector. Most rape service organisations (statutory or voluntary) are now funded by the Home Office, the Ministry of Justice, or the police. Not surprisingly they have become less critical, repeating the police mantra that ‘things have improved’ even in the face of much evidence of a worsening situation. How can they be trusted to be independent when their funding is not?
Recent research by Professor Betsy Stanko, Head of the Strategy, Research and Analysis Unit, Strategy and Improvement Department, Directorate of Resources at the Metropolitan Police, documents that women are targeted for rape who are from vulnerable sectors of society, although there are sectors she has overlooked. Stanko acknowledges that girls under 16, women raped by partners, those with mental health problems and those who were drinking are among the most commonly raped and least likely to get justice. In our experience race, immigration status and nationality also make women targets for violence and are used by police and CPS to deny justice to the victims. Those of us who are women of colour and have been attacked have experienced:
• police going after our Black partner or brother, rather than the white man reported as violent, sometimes a racist neighbour;
• racist personal comments from the police such as ‘why don’t you do your hair nicer?’;
• questions about our immigration status; one woman was wrongly accused of having a false identity;
• police suspecting the rape victim is lying, involved in crime, or has some suspicious motive other than trying to bring her attacker to justice.
Ineffective CPS prosecutors and biased judges give the appearance that the defence has too many rights; but it is the prosecutors and the judges who need to protect witnesses from irrelevant and cruel questioning, which is standard practice in rape trials. For example, several women in our network raped in their teens were accused in court of making it up to seek attention because their father had recently passed away. Others who were victims of domestic violence had their reports of violence used against them in court because the police had not acted on them or because the unprotected victim had withdrawn for fear of repercussions. All this ought to have been stopped – it was aimed only at discrediting the victim implying she is unreliable or liable to make things up. But CPS and judges routinely allow irrelevant “evidence” to be brought up or pursued beyond any reasonable limit.
Police must stop promoting bad officers as this sets the tone for rape investigations and discourages those officers who want to do a good job. More robust punishment is needed against officers who don’t implement the law: they should be taken off rape investigations, sacked and/or prosecuted if they break the law. If they are not held to account, nothing will change.
End the Metropolitan Police strategy of prosecuting rapists for offences other than rape and sexual assault – a way of downgrading sexual violence while using the reports of distressed victims to gather intelligence on unrelated matters.
The police must end their separation of rape from domestic violence. Domestic rape and sexual assault should be investigated as one case and all charges brought to bear.
Prosecutors and judges must protect witnesses from irrelevant and cruel questioning by the defence. This is their job and responsibility; if they exercised it more often, defence lawyers would soon learn that new boundaries for cross examination have been set.
End the 6 month time limit for bringing charges of common assault in cases of domestic violence; it is routinely used not to prosecute violent partners and ex-partners, and it enables sexist or lazy police to drag their feet during investigations until it is too late to bring charges.
Apply charges of aggravated assault or grievous bodily harm more often in domestic violence incidents.
2. The law continues to allow irrelevant sexual history questioning
In 1997-99 we campaigned for a ban on victims being questioned on their sexual history with men other than the accused. How many people a woman may have had sex with or what kind of sex she had with them is not relevant to whether or not she consented to sex with the accused. The new law did not make a distinction between sex with the accused and sex with others. And it did not ban sexual history questions if the man ‘believed’ the woman consented. Given that this is the most common defence (except for the rare cases where the identity of the accused is in doubt), the protection afforded to victims is more apparent than real as judges continue to allow irrelevant and highly prejudicial questioning.
Don’t allow the defence to ask sexual history questions on the pretext that the man ‘believed’ the woman consented.
3. False allegations or miscarriages of justice?
Victims who retract allegations can face prosecution and the UK is particularly punitive compared to other countries. Layla Ibrahim and Gail Sherwood were both prosecuted in 2010 (as were at least 30 others). Both said they were pressed to retract under threat of prosecution. One did retract, the other refused. Both were imprisoned.
We have been campaigning for seven years against prosecution of women reporting rape or sexual assault. 27 organisations signed our 2011 letter to the Director of Public Prosecutions. He responded with guidance: the CPS should not routinely prosecute women with mental illness, girls under 18 or victims of domestic violence. But he refused to acknowledge that biased and negligent investigations are resulting in jail for rape victims rather than rapists.
• “Sarah” was jailed in 2010 after reporting her husband, despite the police and CPS knowing that he had raped her. She retracted her claim under pressure from him and his family – the authorities then prosecuted her for making a “false retraction”. After a public outcry her sentence was quashed but not her conviction – she, not her violent husband, has the criminal record. She has applied to the European Court of Human Rights to overturn her conviction.
• A teenager who came to WAR in 2012 faced prosecution because forensic tests did not corroborate her account. Her formal complaint resulted in reinvestigation by another force – new tests found semen where the first police team claimed there was none; charges against her were withdrawn, the rape prosecution was reinstated and the rapist was jailed for five years. Had she not come to us, she would have been prosecuted and even jailed.
• Another young woman we helped was put on trial in 2013 for a so-called false report of rape. The case was thrown out by the Crown Court Judge, who expressed outrage at the lack of evidence against her. She hadn’t even reported rape, only that she awoke in bed with a soldier in a hotel after she suspected she had been drugged to the point where she did not know what happened to her and whether she had been assaulted. The CPS took the case to Appeal, wasting hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money, where it was thrown out again.
This malicious prosecution directly contradicts a police advice leaflet for victims, which says: ‘You can’t remember what happened to you so how can you tell us? This situation does happen. If you or anyone you know are worried or anxious and you think something may have happened to you, you can go to any police station.’
WAR did collaborative research7 with Lisa Avalos, Law Professor at the University of Arkansas, comparing prosecutions of women for alleged lying in the US and UK. We documented three US cases where women were accused of lying about rape and prosecuted – their rapists were later identified and brought to justice, vindicating the women.
Prosecuting women for false allegations distorts the priorities of the police and CPS – they are constantly suspicious that a woman may be lying and therefore less likely to conduct a thorough investigation of the original rape complaint. Prof. Avalos has called for UK police to implement the IACP Guidelines for investigating rape.
Women who do not report attacks are increasingly telling us they worried about being disbelieved but also about being prosecuted instead of their attacker. So while police publicly claim they want victims to come forward, they discourage them from doing so and even punish those who do.
▶Stop prosecuting women accused of lying about rape.
▶Police to carry out a thorough investigation into every report of rape.
4. Women are unable to report domestic violence to police or doctors for fear of social services taking their children from them
Domestic violence is commonly used to take children away from their mothers, even if the violence is in the past and the violent partner is no longer a threat. The charity Family Rights Group (FRG), has said: "Our data tells us … that the state's way of dealing with domestic violence is often to end up with a child being made subject to child protection plans." The FRG report documents8 that domestic violence – not parental mental illness, drugs or alcohol – is now the main reason children are taken from their mothers.
Similarly the Association for Improvements in the Maternity Services (AIMS) said in 2013 evidence to NICE for draft guidance on Domestic Violence that “admissions of domestic violence, past and present, result in an automatic referral to social services . . .” In AIMS’ letter to the Dept of Health’s Sir Liam Donaldson in 2007, they said “Ironically, the basic, simple help or real support families would like, is unavailable because resources are lacking, and that is not the focus of social work activity . . . Women who are suffering domestic violence are continuing to conceal it . . . Since we have seen cases of babies removed from such women, even after they have left their violent partners and are coping well, we are not surprised.”
Many organisations agree that punitive social workers are preventing women from reporting DV to police or to doctors for fear of losing their children. Social workers don’t seem to care that to separate a child from her or his mother is violence against the child as well as the mother with lifelong consequences for the child. We call this forced separation of child from mother STATE CHILD ABUSE.
This sadistic punishing of victims for the violence they suffered puts both child and mother in danger. If mothers cannot report attacks for fear of losing their children, they will not be able to get out of the situation and the life-threatening torture will continue.
▶ Stop using domestic violence as a reason to take children from their mothers.
▶ Prioritise the rights of the child to stay with the mother or extended family and halt the rush to adoption by strangers.
▶ Give mothers the help and support they need in order to keep their children, rather than take a punitive approach.
5. Legal Aid reform is preventing women holding the authorities to account
The cuts in legal aid remove access to legal representation for everyone with low or modest income. In response to the cuts and the introduction of competitive tendering the best law firms are closing.
For years the police had immunity from being sued [civil] for negligent investigations. However, under the Human Rights Act, rape victims are beginning to take the police and CPS to court for failure to protect them from rape, domestic violence, trafficking and domestic slavery. WAR supported several such cases which will be no longer possible due to legal aid cuts. For example, in 2013 in a landmark human rights case, the daughter of a Women Against Rape volunteer won compensation from the police, following seven years of campaigning, after Southwark Sapphire lost evidence of the rape. The rapist was acquitted; we later learned he had been accused of another rape. A damning IPCC report found that all Sapphire detectives had been transferred, to prioritise motor crime over rape. Four junior officers were disciplined. But the commander who set the policy refused to be interviewed by the IPCC and went on to the National Centre for Policing Excellence.
Similarly, two victims of serial rapist John Warboys have won the right to compensation under the Act for injury they suffered from the police refusal to investigate.
Victims of rape will now be denied legal aid to get a decision judicially reviewed if a prosecution is prematurely closed.
Victims of domestic violence who didn’t report to the violence to the police or their doctor, or stay in a refuge, or have a protective injunction will also be denied legal aid.
▶Recommendation: Stop cuts to Legal Aid and lower the savings limit so that more people can get it.
6. Welfare Reform – massive cuts are closing our escape routes out of violence
Women, and particularly mothers, depend on welfare benefits to escape from violence as they allow for basic survival and time for recovery – for the mother as well as the traumatised children who need their mother’s presence and reassurance. Government “welfare reform” has slashed benefits, trapping women and children with violent men, and impoverishing women and children who do escape.
• Mothers of children over age five, and single women, are allowed only a three-month respite from job seeking conditions, and are sanctioned with a cut in benefit if they miss appointments.
• Crisis Loans and the Social Fund have been abolished. Many women relied on such funds to set up a new home. Local councils refuse many applications for cash help as these are discretionary.
• Traumatised rape survivors and refugee women recovering from appalling injuries, are found “fit to work” by Atos, the company in charge of applying the work capability test on those who apply for sickness benefit.
• The Benefit Cap limits a family's total benefits to £500 a week (including housing benefit and child benefit). Mothers and children are being left with nothing after rent is paid. Rents, especially in London, are extortionate even for social housing. As a result thousands of families have already been forced out of London, away from relatives and other protective networks.
A legal challenge was brought by a number of single mother families, two of them fleeing domestic violence. Their solicitor Rebekah Carrier described the Cap as "catastrophic, cruel and arbitrary" and WAR petitioned to end it. An Early Day Motion is circulating among Members of Parliament. The Children’s Society said that 2/3 of those who will be affected are children. Despite all this, the court ruled that the Benefit Cap was legal. The legal challenge is now being taken to the Supreme Court.
Families are being left with no money for food or heating (emergency payments from the local authority are discretionary and short-term) – this in itself is a justification for children to be taken into care. Many refuges and hostels are not exempt from the Cap, so will not accept women unable to pay their high rents.
Single women escaping domestic violence are also hit by the Benefit Cap, which is £350 for a single person. As a result, there is immense pressure to stay with or return to violent men despite the risk of being injured or even murdered.
▶ End the benefit cap and other welfare reform as it harms victims of violence.
7. Criminalisation of sex workers and clients make women more vulnerable to violence
We strongly oppose the blurring of the distinction between consenting sex and rape. It allows for silencing and manipulation of so called victims by people in authority who have their own political agendas.
We oppose the characterisation of sex work as violence against women. It assumes that sex workers cannot tell the difference between rape and consenting sex, and that someone else is better qualified to say what ‘protection’ they need. Criminalisation flies in the face of the anti-rape movement fighting for every woman’s right to determine what she consents to.
In December, over 200 police officers in riot gear accompanied by the media raided sex workers’ flats in Soho, London. The police action has been criticised by sex workers and local people, including the parish priest as unfair, dangerous and unlawful. While the police originally claimed they were acting to protect vulnerable women from rape and trafficking (one of whom they forced into the street in just her underwear), they later admitted that they found no victims of rape or trafficking. Their justification then changed to clamping down on harbouring stolen goods.
Actor Rupert Everett described the raid and flat closures as a ‘land grab’ for a multi-million pound development to gentrify the area.
How can police so short of officers to thoroughly investigate the rapes, sexual assaults and domestic violence that are reported to them, afford to put huge resources into cracking down on sex between consenting adults? Why are they acting for property developers rather than rape victims?
Senior police officers have publicly stated that: “[police] operations to tackle the trade are ‘counterproductive’ and likely to put the lives of women at risk9.”
According to the English Collective of Prostitutes, which supported the women throughout the raids and legal actions, Soho is the safest place in London for sex workers, in part because the women have the support of the local community. Evidence shows it is 10 times safer to work in premises than on the street, especially when working with another woman present10.
Why are the police assuming these sex workers are trafficked? Anti-trafficking enforcement actions have been shown to be punitive to victims, leading to deportation back to their country of origin. They have acted as immigration controls dressed up as safety measures. If the authorities want to stop trafficking, as we do, they need to prosecute genuine traffickers, while safeguarding and supporting victims. The “no recourse to public funds” rule works against victims who need emergency accommodation and money to live on.
We defended a victim of rape in civil war in Uganda who was made to have sex with men by the woman who brought her to the UK, who kept the money they paid. Evidence provided by Freedom from Torture and ourselves about the impact of what this victim had endured in Uganda was used by the immigration authorities against her. UKBA claimed that she was traumatised by the violence in Uganda not by the violence in the UK. So although her account of trafficking was accepted, she was considered no longer a victim of it. As a result her case to remain in the UK was refused on those grounds and she is still fighting for asylum.
As a member of the Safety First Coalition, set up after the murders of five sex workers in Ipswich, we oppose the criminalisation of clients. By driving prostitution further underground it deters women from reporting rapists and other violent men. Sex workers say the police must go after the men they have reported, not those they have not.
We have met representatives of the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective and they have shown us evidence that sex workers are safer since prostitution was decriminalised there. It is galling that the UK government had not been interested in such evidence, preferring to press ahead with criminalisation.
▶ The decriminalisation of prostitution for safety’s sake.
▶ An end to raids, arrests and prosecutions of sex workers which all push women into danger.
An end to the use of trafficking legislation to arrest and deport immigrant sex workers rather than protect genuine victims.
This evidence was previously submitted to the Joint Select Human Rights Committee Inquiry into Violence Against Women and Girls (UK)
1. “Police 'culture of disbelief' over rape claims alarms official monitoring group”, Alan Travis, The Guardian, 31 January 2014.
2. The Guardian editorial, 14 February 2014.
4. “Police failed to investigate sex attacks across six London boroughs A man accused of rape was allowed to walk free and kill two children as a result of a policy to manipulate crime statistics.” Vikram Dodd, The Guardian, 26 February 2013. www.theguardian.com/uk/2013/feb/26/police-failed-investigate-sex-attacks
5. “Metropolitan police facing crisis after failures in Kirk Reid rape inquiry”, Sandra Laville, The Guardian, 27 March 2009. http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2009/mar/27/metropolitan-police-rape-inquiry
6. Sex crime: Yard attacked over failures in serial offender probe, with officers later promoted to top jobs, Margaret Davis, The Independent, 26 February 2013. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/sex-crime-yard-attacked-over-...
7. “False Reports of Sexual Assault: Findings on Police Practices, Laws, and Advocacy Options”. See the research at https://womenagainstrape.net/sites/default/files/final_paper_for_war_9-23...
9. Chris Armitt, national police lead on prostitution and Martin Hewitt, ACPO lead on sexual offences, quoted in “Mariana Popa was killed working as a prostitute. Are the police to blame?” The Guardian 19 January 2014.
10. Hilary Kinnel, Prostitutes' Exposure to Rape, June 1993.