Making rape an electoral issue

Jill Saward

You might imagine that anyone suffering the trauma of a sexual attack would seek to remain unknown and heal their wounds, rather than reveal themselves, go on the offensive and campaign for change.

But that is exactly what Jill Saward did when, in 1986 aged just 21, she was raped at her home after her father, a priest, and her boyfriend were beaten nearly to death during what the press called the Ealing Vicarage Rape.

Forfeiting her right to anonymity Saward became the first victim of a sex attack to ‘go public’ when she wrote her story in 1990, and has since supported victims of sexual violence and campaigned for changes to the way the law treats rape victims.

In July, she stood against David Davis in the Haltemprice and Howden by-election in East Yorkshire, flying in the face of the MP’s fears of a ‘big brother’ state by calling for a compulsory national DNA database of all British citizens.

Saward is a resilient woman. The judge at the trial of her three attackers, Justice Leonard, gave harsher sentences to the man who organised the burglary than the two rapists, and said her suffering was “not so very great,” evidently on the performance of the strong-willed young woman giving evidence to the court.

Her Christian faith saw her through hard times including thoughts of suicide, but with characteristic kindness, she didn’t throw herself in front of train for fear of traumatising the driver. And ten years later, she met and forgave Robert Horscroft, the burglar that led the raid but didn’t rape her, when he was released from prison.

Speaking to The Big Issue, Saward, now 43, married with three children, recalled that forfeiting her anonymity was not so big a step to take: “I had little anonymity from the word go. Apart from the name ‘Jill’ – I have an identical twin – everything else they already knew,” she said.

“The policewoman supporting me said I should write a book, and she said it so often in the end I did. In some ways it was cathartic, but in other ways it meant I had to live through things all over again. But that other people were helped by it, I’m glad.”

Her work since then has included direct support to victims, training police officers and media work but it was, she said, the silence from David Davis on the subject of rape during his four years as shadow Home Secretary that made her want to stand.

With a tiny budget and few supporters to help Saward found the campaign trail lonely, with some voters accusing her of being a “Labour stooge.” But she found it worthwhile, with many commentators in the press adding their voices to hers, and voters openly supportive of her highlighting the issue as she did – whether or not they voted for her.

Saward said: “David Davis made no attempt to take me on, didn’t try and address the issues I was talking about. He blanked me. Since the election I’ve written to ask why the Tories couldn’t support the Rape Crisis Centre in Hull, which received no money from the Tory council whatsoever. They just haven’t addressed the issue. I wrote to David Cameron. No response.”

It is such inactivity from politicians that spurs Saward on, but her principle policy of expanding the police national DNA database into a compulsory record of every British citizens’ DNA has far-reaching consequences and few facts to support it.

In a report on the retention policy used by police in England, whose powers to take samples without consent and store them indefinitely are wider than in any other country, a Nuffield Council on Bioethics report stated: “There is very limited evidence indeed that the retention regime of England and Wales is effective in significantly improving detection rates.”

It found the stricter regulations in Scotland, where records are deleted if charges are dropped or the accused is acquitted, have not led to fewer matches between profiles on the database and DNA found at crime scenes – in fact higher in Scotland at 68 per cent than England and Wales with 52 per cent.

Furthermore, a DNA profile of everyone in the country would still not guarantee raising rape conviction rates, for the same reason that rape has historically been a difficult crime to prosecute: it is generally consent, rather than the identity of the attacker, that is the issue – violent stranger rapes as in Saward’s case represent only around 10 per cent of the 11,648 reported rapes last year, with the majority of attackers known to the victim.

Saward recognises this but says: “Even so, that’s 10 per cent of cases – potentially thousands of women – where it could help find an attacker,” she said. “And it’s not just rape, it’s murder and other crimes as well.”

It is a statistical truth that a small minority of the population commit the vast majority of crime. By including everybody on the database, law-abiding or not, the possibility of false matches and miscarriages of justice increases dramatically.

But Saward dismisses this, and other civil liberty objections, saying: “We have miscarriages of justice already. Why would you want to get rid of technologies that could help?”

She suggests other technologies targeted by Davis such as CCTV could be better used in rape investigations, especially where alcohol is involved or there are concerns drinks have been spiked.

“If a girl says, I had two glasses of wine and two glasses doesn’t usually affect me like this, then police have more to go on, not least if it can be seen on CCTV that the drinks have been spiked,” Saward adds.

“I think there’s a lot of spiking going on in pubs and clubs, but police don’t take blood tests from the girls to see if what’s in their bloodstream corresponds to what they’ve thought they’d drunk.”

Despite much recent public hand-wringing, government support for the victims of sexual abuse is sparse. There are only 38 centres of the locally-run Rape Crisis network in England, and only 20 of the new government-run Sexual Assault Referral Centres, each set up on a shoe-string budget. Funding comes from many different sources, each with different, usually onerous statistical or reporting requirements that pull staff away from the work of supporting victims.

“The picture is dismal and getting worse,” Saward said. “There are groups closing – eight Rape Crisis centres in the last five years – and funding is geared towards domestic violence rather than sexual violence.”

In truth, there are no easy answers. The nature of the crime makes the requirements of the police investigation difficult for the victim, with up to a quarter dropping out early on. But with more female officers and specialist training this is improving.

Saward says: “I think we have to look more to educating juries, and their attitudes towards sexual violence. Cases judged by judges alone might be better – but only if they understand the complexities and consequences of rape.”

She points out that jurors generally don’t realise that, for the case to have come to trial at all, the CPS must already have been convinced of the possibility of a conviction on the strength of the evidence.

And she has a point. It is worth noting an Amnesty International survey from 2005 that showed 25 per cent of Britons believed that how a woman dressed or her number of previous sexual partners made her partially or even totally responsible for being raped, and nearly a third blamed the woman if she was drunk, because it is this British public that as jurors convict or acquit rapists.


[This article originally appeared in The Big Issue, August 2008]


Leave a Reply