Dani Garavelli: Rape clause shames the benefits system

If you have been watching the latest series of Broadchurch, you may have gained the impression that attitudes towards rape are becoming more enlightened. Julie Hesmondhalgh's portrayal of survivor Trish Winterman challenges misconceptions around the 'type' of woman likely to be affected and provides insight into the reasons victims may not report their rape immediately, or indeed at all.

Alison Thewliss, SNP MP for Glasgow Central, leads a protest against the rape clause at Westminster

After Winterman goes to the police, she is treated well. She is taken to a Sexual Assault Referral Centre (SARC) and questioned sensitively, with any suggestion she might not be telling the truth quickly shut down by the detective sergeant. There are flaws; her first meeting with her rape counsellor takes place in a café in clear view of other customers. But, overall, you can see an effort has been made to debunk myths and promote good practice.

In the real world, however, we seem to be going backwards. A recent report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary Scotland pointed out that there is only one SARC north of the Border, with more than half of forensic examinations taking place in police stations. If the fictional Winterman had been raped in a remote part of the country she might have had to wait three days to see a female doctor.

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Meanwhile, the contempt certain sections of society continue to feel for victims was last week demonstrated by Clyde FC’s decision to sign striker David Goodwillie just months after a civil court ruled he was a rapist; and its chairman Norrie Innes’ attempt to sell that decision as an act of altruism as opposed to self-serving cynicism.

As lamentable as all this is, though, it pales into insignificance when set beside the Tories’ latest attack on women’s rights: the iniquitous rape clause. The party’s new two-child cap on tax credits means third children are no longer eligible for extra cash intended to help low-income families. Unless, of course, their mothers can prove they were conceived as a result of non-consensual sex or within an otherwise coercive relationship.

SNP MP Alison Thewliss has been protesting against the existence of the rape clause ever since she spotted it tucked away in the detail of the budget in July 2015. Together with a number of third sector organisations, such as Scottish Women’s Aid, Engender and Rape Crisis Scotland, she has been highlighting the offensiveness of a process that will re-traumatise women and stigmatise their children. But the Tories have pressed on regardless and last week the Department of Work and Pensions published the eight-page forms which victims have to complete to make a claim.

The rape clause has been shocking from the outset. Just how shocking became obvious when Nicola Sturgeon’s description of the policy provoked gasps of disbelief at the Women in the World summit in New York. But there is something about seeing it laid out in cold officialese – an act of violence reduced to a series of bureaucratic hurdles – that chills the blood.

First, applicants face the humiliation of having to sign below the box that says: “I believe the non-consensual conception exemption applies to my child.” Then, they have to print that child’s name, because publicly labelling them the product of a rape may be preferable to seeing them go hungry. These are the choices the working poor are being forced to make by a government that says young people should not be “defined by the circumstances of their birth”.

Next, they have to confirm they are no longer living with the father of said child, even though we know the vast majority of sexual violence takes place within long-term relationships. Finally, they have to provide some corroboration: evidence of a conviction, compensation or testimony from a health professional or charity they have dealt with. Thus rape victims – whose mental well-being depends on them being able to re-establish a degree of control – are being stripped of their right to decide when, how and even if they wish to report their assault to a third party.

So damaging is the rape clause considered that Scottish Women’s Aid and Rape Crisis Scotland have refused to co-operate for fear of being complicit. As public sector employees, GPs and nurses will be expected to do as they are told, though they have had no sexual violence awareness training in preparation, and the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has already said it is inappropriate for its members to judge if a woman has been raped.

The two-child cap on tax credits doesn’t make sense on the government’s own terms. Ostensibly, it is aimed at getting more people off benefits and into work, but two thirds of those who claim them are already in employment. However it is in keeping with its persistent targeting of austerity at society’s most vulnerable, particularly women (and therefore children). A report from the independent think-tank, the Women’s Budget Group, suggested women would shoulder 85 per cent of the changes to the tax and benefits system by 2020. We can already see the impact of cuts and of sanctioning in increased attendance at food banks, period poverty and stories of school pupils begging for scraps.

The Tories claim the policy will drive change, leading people to think about how many kids they can afford. But social engineering is a dangerous practice. And all our lives are built on shifting sands. The two-child cap punishes women for events such as marital breakdown, which are unforeseen and out of their control. 
And it punishes children simply for being born. According to the Child Poverty Action Group, it will push 200,000 more into poverty by the end of the decade.

When David Cameron came to power he talked about subjecting every policy to a “family test”. Judging by the welfare reforms his party went on to introduce, he surely meant “to see how much damage we can possibly inflict”.

The rape clause takes this disregard for dignity a step further. Turning her usual blind eye to the national party’s excesses, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives Ruth Davidson described the clause as the “most sensitive way possible” of handlings things.

But really it is evidence of the degree to which the party has become inured to distress. If you speak of migrants as “swarms”, families as “benefits units” and pregnancy by rape as “non-consensual conception”, then it is easier to detach yourself from victims’ suffering; to force them to relive their ordeal and to fight for every last penny.