Megan is a survivor of rape. After the incident, Megan was left traumatised and relied on support services. However, she is unhappy with the way her case was dealt with. With failed police communication, Megan found out the result of her court case through a tabloid newspaper. She was also not allowed her support worker inside the courtroom where the trial took place because it took place in an embassy. Megan wants to challenge and tackle the stigma surrounding survivors of rape. She also highlights the importance of women’s services and urges the government to stop cutting funds to the sector as women’s services provide vital and lifesaving support.
‘We have these amazing women’s services in this country but due to the lack of investment, the lack of funding they are failing women left right and centre. The average waiting time for me when I went to the Bridge to receive counselling was 6 months. When the government don’t invest or champion the voices of the survivors of sexual violence or the survivors of domestic violence and all gender based violence what it says to us as survivors is that we are not worthy and we don’t have the right to have the access to the really necessary services. I think the way we view rape and the way we view sexual assault is that it is dirty and that it is shameful and sinful and so that says to the survivor that you should feel all of those things. And so for me a way to rise above that is to speak out about it.’
What is the government’s policy towards sexual violence?
Violence against Women is a serious human rights issue. Women and girls are at high risk of sexual assault and rape. 1 in 5 women are victims of sexual violence and each year 85,000 women are raped in England and Wales alone. In 2014-2015, 30% of female rape victims were under 16 years of age and 25% were 14 or younger. Steps to prevent sexual violence and to provide support for survivors are vital. Women’s services provide such support which often includes counselling, legal advice, mental health services, and sexual assault support services. Police records show that the number of rapes in the UK have doubled in the past four years, while the percentage of allegations resulting in convictions has fallen.
The demand for women’s services is steadily increasing, yet women’s organisations and specialist rape crisis organisations are chronically underfunded. The UK has failed to meet recommendations from the Istanbul Convention which call for one Rape Crisis centre to be established for every 200,000 women in the population. Most women in the UK do not have access to a Rape Crisis centre. The government should increase efforts to support victims and increase funding to services that help women.
The government has also not yet made standardised and comprehensive sex and relationships education compulsory in all UK schools. There is widespread demand for this to be implemented not only from women’s organisations, but from students and parents too. The mentality which allows for high levels of sexual and domestic violence to exist in the UK start in schools. UK schools have high rates of sexual harassment, which makes it all the more pressing to teach young people about what healthy sexual relationships look like, including teaching them how to spot abuse. Prevention and support are two key factors that the government needs to invest in in order to help stop sexual violence and rape. This includes adequate funding for support services, education in schools, and raising awareness of sexual violence and challenging stigma.
Specialist Women’s Services and Organisations
Specialist women’s services are vital to supporting diverse groups of women and are lifesaving. Some groups of women experience greater marginalisation and isolation, and have particular experiences as a result of intersectional discrimination. That is, as well as being female, they also suffer additional discrimination on one or more fronts, for example: racism, homophobia, disablism, and poverty. Generic ‘catch all’ organisations supporting all survivors of violence often cannot provide the expertise and support that is needed for BME women and women with multiple needs. Women-only services develop to meet need, so those services which are led by and for specific communities of women (such as BAMER, lesbian, bisexual, older and younger women, lone mothers, mental health survivors etc.) are crucial. These women-only services are often able to reach women who would not otherwise engage with services, either in public or third sectors (including general women’s organisations).
As with women-only services generally, women from minority groups want to access services run by women from their own, or similar, backgrounds as they will have a better understanding of their experiences and issues, and greater empathy than people who do not share their backgrounds. Such specialist services offer therapeutic support, counselling, peer groups, and many services in languages other than English, delivered within a sensitive framework and a safe environment.
Organisations led by, and for, minority women are also necessary in addressing social exclusion. They enable integration through empowering and building the confidence of their service users, and by helping women who are often on the margins of communities to access opportunities that many other people take for granted.
Megan has written an excerpt about Safe Space Bristol – a group she is working with to help survivors:
Safe Space is a survivor led support group for women who have experienced rape and sexual assault. It provides a free, open and non-judgemental space for women who seek empowerment, validation, and support from other survivors. As a survivor, I felt there was a real lack of survivor led support services in my city but not only that, spaces in general where women could meet and share their experiences and emotions. From speaking to survivors, I recognised there needed to be a change in the way survivors seek support, creating a more open and inclusive space for women who at any point in their lives had experienced sexual violence. I wanted to create a space where women ultimately took back control of how they recover, how they heal and how they access support. Often women feel there is a requirement to be accessing other support services in order to have professional counselling, or be in contact with the police, two factors that can be incredibly challenging and isolating for survivors who face certain barriers and who might not want to have a formal relationship with particular organisations but still want support and understanding. Safe Space is about giving survivors the time and space to work through things they may have held for a long time, allowing them to recognise and internalise their pain and hopefully move forward in a supportive and understanding environment. In a city where twenty women are raped every day, where we have the lowest conviction rate in the UK for rape and sexual assault cases, and where the average waiting time for professional counselling is four to six months, now more than ever we need more Safe Spaces.
What is the issue with cuts to women’s services and organisations?
Women’s services and organisations provide great efforts in supporting victims of violence. Many women rely on these services to rebuild their lives. With cuts to women’s services, less people are able to seek the help they need as a lack of funding means that women’s organizations are left with a limited capacity to help victims. Women’s services not only support these women, they also do work on campaigning for victims of sexual violence, create awareness and tackle the stigma surrounding survivors of sexual violence and rape. Their work is vital.
The government should stop cutting the funding to this sector so that women’s services do not have to turn women that need help away. The government should also collaborate with these specialist services to create a national strategy to end violence against women. It must be noted that smaller specialist women’s organisations, like those for BME women with specific language or disability needs for example, are suffering disproportionately under funding cuts.