Review of Justice is Your Right
By Frith Taylor
In May 2020 Women Against Rape (WAR) released the latest edition of 'Justice is Your Right: A Self Help Guide to Survivors of Rape and Sexual Assault & their Supporters' . For many years this guide has empowered sexual abuse survivors by explaining how they can seek justice. Drawing on punk zine culture, Justice is Your Right emerged in 2012, alongside a host of homemade resistance literature that bonded activist communities together, such as Slut Walk and other grassroots women's movements.
Over the years it has been updated with legal and policy changes. It was always detailed, borne of the experiences of survivors and activists. It begins with definitions of rape and consent, and gives survivors a step-by-step guide of what to do immediately after sexual assault. The guide is a manifestation of the radical compassion that has fuelled the women's liberation movement since the 1970s. There is no power relation between reader and writer; the guide is both written and read by survivors. The guide has input from experiences that move across age, ethnicity, gender, sexual identity and immigration status. In a similar way to the #MeToo movement, it makes visible something survivors have known for a long time; that women and non-binary people confide in each other, warn each other, and share information to protect and empower one another. The guide serves as a formalised whisper network; sourced from the experiences from survivors, activists, lawyers and researchers, it makes this knowledge available to a wide audience.
Justice is Your Right unpacks the various stages of the legal process of rape prosecution. Chapters are ordered according to questions or concerns survivors may have, such as, 'I've suffered domestic abuse, and I'm afraid he'll take the children,' or, 'I'm worried about being arrested and deported'. Not only is this an efficient and effective way to organise information, but by putting the chapters in first person the survivor is placed at the centre of the case. While WAR provides continual support throughout rape and sexual assault cases, it is up to the survivor to drive them forward. Self-help is an important principle at the heart of WAR's work; by taking control of their situation survivors recover their agency, and go some way to healing the trauma they have experienced.
Compassionate validation is another of the guiding principles of Justice is Your Right. Throughout the guide, victim blaming is rejected outright; and stories are shared to ensure survivors can stand in solidarity rather than alone. The style of the guide is at once bold and full of feeling. Survivors are reassured by the sense that they have a right to pursue justice and are receiving advice from seasoned activists, about how to win. One of the main obstacles in reporting rape is the stigma that it carries, which means that it is often difficult for survivors to admit even to themselves that they have been raped.
One survivor said,
'I wanted to write to say thank you for the brilliant self-help guide that you have on your website. It was only once I had read it, that I could fully come to terms with the fact that what happened to me was rape. Before this, I was denying the truth, hoping I suppose that if I didn’t use this awful, difficult word ‘rape’ that it would mean it didn’t really happen. I am so grateful to you for providing this information for me, and that I found it when I needed it. Thank you again, and I wish you all the strength and determination in this continuing battle.'
The advice in Justice is Your Right is drawn from years of sexual abuse case work and a thorough understanding of the various components of the criminal justice system. There is a section for each stage of a case, as well as advice on how to complain about the police, Crown Prosecution Service and judge should anything go wrong. Justice is Your Right hopes to make sense of the daunting prospect of navigating a legal system which far too often interrogates survivors of sexual abuse and blames them rather than the perpetrator.
The updated guide could not be released at a more pressing time. Prosecutions for rape are at an all-time low; recent figures show that only 1.4% of reported rape cases in England and Wales end in prosecution. These figures, the lowest since records began, are in part a result of recent changes to the way rape cases are handled. Survivors must endure a 'digital strip search', and hand over their mobile phone to the police, or their case will be dropped. Women are also more at risk of domestic abuse during lockdown; in April 2020 the Metropolitan police reported a rise of more than a tenth, and since then may agencies and NGOs have reported huge rises in demand.
Rape and domestic violence are especially common experiences among sex workers, women of colour and women with insecure immigration status. The government's hostile environment policy means that many immigrant survivors are unable to report for fear of being deported or sent to a detention centre. WAR is active in Global Women Against Deportations, a coalition at the Crossroads Women's Centre organising for the rights of women seeking asylum from rape, domestic violence and other torture. Destitution, detention and deportation are at the centre of the government's immigration policies designed to force people to give up and return to the countries they fled. Yarl's Wood, the most notorious of detention centres, has been described by women as being 'like hell'. They were given no exit date, and effectively held indefinitely. Numerous credible allegations of serious abuses were made against Yarl's Wood guards such as rape, physical and psychological intimidation, refusal to provide medical help and other racist and discriminatory treatment. Women organised hunger strikes in protest, which they describes at a press conference at the Women's Centre, hosted by Black Women's Rape Action Project.
Sex workers face a similar dilemma when pursuing justice for rape and sexual abuse. While sex work itself is not illegal in the UK, sex workers can be prosecuted for working together or soliciting clients. A report from the Home Office found that 'many' sex workers have experienced some form of sexual abuse but feel unable to report these crimes because of their common experience of police prejudice which means that they are often dismissed or even arrested themselves.
WAR's guide draws on working relationships with the English Collective of Prostitutes and Black Women's Rape Action Project to acknowledge the ways that discrimination against women of colour, women with insecure immigration status, or who are sex workers may require taking extra precautions when considering approaching the police.
Justice is Your Right argues that while some men do experience sexual assault, rape and domestic violence, these crimes disproportionately affect women. This is a crucial distinction at a time when pressure from men's rights groups helped keep gender-neutral language in the 2021 Domestic Abuse Bill, despite opposition from WAR and many other women’s organisations. WAR's guide is a crucial self-help tool where survivors can find practical advice and support. It validates survivors' experiences by identifying the various breaches of consent, and its clear, unflinching writing style goes some way to removing the mystery and stigma of rape and how to strengthen the fight for justice.