Content warning: this article discusses and mentions, sexual assault, rape and sexual violence.

The stance from VAWG organisations

Centre for Women’s Justice reported on the review, stating that “Latest Home Office figures show 52,210 rapes were recorded in England and Wales in 2020, but only 843 resulted in a charge by the end of the year – fewer than 1 in 60 cases.”

VAWG organisations including CFWJ, End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW), Imkaan and Rape Crisis England & Wales have long been campaigning for these horrific figures to be addressed. This same group or organisations also petitioned against the Police and Crime Bill that was at the heart of the protests following Sarah Everard’s murder by a London Met police officer.

As such, these organisations have been heavily involved with the campaigning for the Rape Review and, as Amelia Handy, Policy Lead for Rape Crisis England and Wales has said, “We were fully invested in the Government’s Rape Review from the outset. For the sake of all rape victims and survivors – past, present and future – it is critical that it be a success.”

CFWJ acknowledged that their concerns were reflected in the “strong language” used in the Rape Review, mirroring the seriousness of the subject matter, and noted “encouraging aspects of the Review” and that “the Government’s apology for systemic failings is important for victims and survivors.”

Response in PMQS

On Wednesday 23rd of June, Prime Minister Boris Johnson was questioned by Sir Keir Starmer at PMQS on the plummeting of rape convictions under the current Conservative Government. Starmer stated that currently 98.4% of rape cases do not end up in conviction.

In response the Prime Minister said, “Of course, to all the victims of rape and sexual violence, all the victims and survivors, of course I say sorry for the trauma that they have been through”.

Prefacing an apology, that has been a long time coming for the many thousands of people who have reported assault and/or rape and not seen any conviction, with an “of course”, is sure to leave many feeling frustrated and disappointed.

In reality, the government’s stance on this cannot be summed up with a flippant “of course”. Their lack of addressing this crisis with any real urgency since convictions began declining in 2016, will result in many victims and survivors feeling cast off, neglected and dejected.

Rape, sexual assault and sexual violence of any kind is one of the leading reasons for people to develop trauma disorders. In 2017, The European Journal of Psychotraumatology reported that women have a two to three times higher risk of developing PTSD, due to the high chances of experiencing sexual violence.

This claim is backed up by 2020’s Crime Survey of England and Wales that stated of the 773,000 instances of sexual assault of rape that year, 618,000 were perpetrated against those identifying as women.

Solutions from VAWG organisations vs. the government

CFWJ stated in their press release that they became concerned early on in the development of the Rape Review, about “the lack of meaningful engagement with us as stakeholders – and crucially with victims and survivors”.

To address this concern, they collectively produced an in-depth ‘shadow rape review’ that included numerous recommendations for improving the “failing criminal justice system”, and most importantly from a point of view that is victim and survivor informed.

The report, titled ‘The Decriminalisation of Rape report’ included a number of calls for “radical change” that the CFWJ claim has not been sufficiently addressed in the governments Rape Review.

These include:

  • Meaningful equalities analysis – independent research into who does and doesn’t report sexual offences to the police and why
  • Urgent review of Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) governance to ensure accountability for poor charging decisions
  • Radical review of a system that treats survivors as suspects and measures to ensure that only relevant disclosure is sought from those reporting
  • Special Commission on the role and efficacy of juries in rape trials
  • Publicly-funded and specialist-led public awareness and education campaign on rape myths and consent
  • Access for survivors to specialist, independent and wraparound support and advocacy, which is not predicated on reporting to the police, including through services run by and for Black and minoritized women, Disabled survivors and others who experience disproportionate barriers to justice

Upon the publishing of the Rape Review by the government, CFWJ articulated in their press release that “very few of these recommendations have been taken up…This is a missed opportunity to create the fundamental changes required to make the system fit for purpose.”

CFWJ note that although there are elements of the review that are encouraging, the immediate changes and big, long-term commitments seen in their own “shadow rape review” are missing.

As part of the collective of organisations that produced ‘The Decriminalisation of Rape report’, ImKaan represent the need for policy, law, and legislation around sexual violence to be informed on the experience of minoritized women. Imkaan have over two decades of national and international experience working with Black and minoritized women around issues such as domestic violence, forced marriage and ‘honour-based’ violence.

Sumanta Roy, head of research, evaluation and development at Imkaan has commented on the Rape Review’s uninformed approach on the disproportionate experiences of sexual violence that Black and minoritized women face:

“Where is the leadership from the police and CPS to show us that Black, minoritized victims of rape would feel confident to report rape and receive justice through the CJS (Criminal Justice System)?.. Without ring-fenced funding to address the historical under-funding of specialist independent support services for Black, minoritized women they will not have access to the support they need to address the trauma of rape and sexual violence…across England and Wales only 7% of Black and minoritized-led specialist organisations are funded to deliver ISVA support.”

One of the main concerns from CFWJ who headed the shadow review, is that the CPS has become “risk averse”. Meaning that despite when cases are “compelling” the CPS tend to not go to court. This is especially worrying as it frequently results in “dangerous and repeat offenders not being prosecuted.”

This is just one of the indicators from over the last five years that the Criminal Justice System has consistently moved away from a model of prioritising victims voices.

An aspect of the of the Review that addressed the VAWG collective’s recommendations is the commitment to a trauma informed approach to rape victims across the CJS. The review state’s its understanding of the “vital importance of specialist, independent advocacy and therapeutic support for victims and survivors”. As an aside to this, investigations will also begin taking a more ‘suspect-focused’ approach after a scheme for this model was introduced to great success in Avon and Somerset.

As trauma disorders are the most commonly experienced kind of mental distress after sexual violence against women, this is welcome news that the government and CJS understands that safeguarding must go further than contact with the CJS upon the event of rape or sexual assault, it is also the long-term mental health of victims and survivors that needs protecting.

In conclusion, CFWJ re-emphasise that the urgency to “fix” the justice system for victims and survivors of rape must meet the ambition within the government’s Rape Review. Many of the actions in the Review have been given a time frame of 24 months to implement, in response to this, CFWJ stated “Women have been waiting for justice for too long already.”

It is clear that within the Rape Review, there is an acknowledgment, a murmur of the government’s desire to take responsibility for these failings that have put thousands of women at risk of developing debilitating mental health issues because their trauma has not been acknowledged or validated. However, as the press release from CFWJ lays out quite plainly, without proper involved work with VAWG organisations, victims and survivors the government is still missing the obvious need for this action to be addressed, implemented and prioritised now.

You can read the full press release from CFWJ here

If you or someone you know is in need of guidance on the issues discussed in this article, Rape Crisis England and Wales  have a helpline and a page of tools, information and signposts to support.