Beware of politicians bearing gifts, violence against women demands real change - Rachel Mackie

The past few weeks have been horrific.

The death of Sarah Everard sparked protests that were ripped apart by heavy handed police, candles of solidarity flickered in thousands of windows and women everywhere have been speaking out about their experience with violence, abuse and fear at the hands of men.

Millions of voices all desperately calling for change.

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Women are dying, and something must be done.

A member of the public walks past the latest mural by Irish artist Emmalene Blake in Dublin's city centre. The inscription 'When will I be able to walk alone at night and feel safe?' relates to violence against women in the wake of the death of Sarah Everard. Picture date: Monday March 29, 2021. PA Photo. Photo credit : Niall Carson/PA Wire

So, as sure as night follows day, in walk the politicians, full of wide-eyed shock and neatly-phrased sound bites.

It’s too late for all that. It’s too late for platitudes – it is time for action.

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And, the way I see it, it is crucial that we are specific, detailed, and data driven in our approach.

The need to see our lived experience written into law and discussed in the public sphere is understandable, but if practically it doesn’t make a difference to the day-to-day life of women, it is completely pointless.

Without breaking down the issues, by relying on sturdy data and the voices of real experts, not only do we risk excluding the voices of many women not often included in the conversation, but we could completely miss the chance for real change.

In the wake of Sarah Everard’s death, the Tories blasted the Labour party for not voting on a bill that will ensure: “tougher sentences for child murderers and sex offenders, killer drivers and measures that protect the vulnerable.”

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer tweeted something equally catchy in retaliation about the sentence for rape being five years, while you can get 10 years for abusing a statue.

Far be it for me to disagree with the former Director of Public Prosecutions, but it should be mentioned that the maximum sentence for rape in both the English and Welsh system and the Scottish system, is life in prison.

In Scotland, the average sentence for rape is around six and a half years.

This average sentence, it could and perhaps should, be argued is too low.

However, this argument can only take you so far.

As Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: “Yet again we face the depressing spectacle of a government using sentencing legislation to play politics.

“Sentences for serious crime have been getting much longer for two decades now.

“But there is not a shred of evidence to show that this runaway inflation in punishment reduces crime.”

Let’s say that again for those at the back - there is not a shred of evidence that increasing sentences reduces crime.

According to Zero Tolerance: “One in ten women in Scotland has experienced rape and one in five women in Scotland has had someone try to make them have sex against their will.”

This statistic alone is horrific and demonstrative of a massive problem in our country today.

Equally eye opening are Rape Crisis Scotland’s stats that reveal in 2018-2019, 2,426 women reported being raped.

324 of the cases went before a jury, 152 resulted in a conviction.

Discussing sentencing is all well and good, but if most cases aren’t even being reported - let alone getting a conviction - then we’re hardly addressing the root of the problem.

So, what is going wrong? What needs to be done?

Rape Crisis Scotland’s Survivor Reference Group’s Initial Report lays out a full list of reforms for the justice system to consider.

It is a list they composed after they took the time to ask people whose case went through the courts. Radical.

They call for:

- Pre-recorded evidence to be taken as close to the incident as possible.

- An end to unnecessary, administrative, bureaucratic delays that trap survivors in limbo and negatively impact their mental health.

- Juries to be screened in terms of prejudicial attitudes that will impact the case, given the prevalence of stereotypes and myths about sexual violence.

- Mandatory training on sexual violence and trauma informed practice for police, COPFS staff, sheriffs and judges.

The report is on their website and you should definitely take the time to read it through.

Also, and it seems obvious, Police Scotland needs funding properly.

And new and compulsory training for police officers should be introduced.

Legal aid needs to be given every penny that can be spared to ensure it is available to everyone who needs it.

Children need to be taught at school about what enthusiastic consent looks like - let’s not just teach them how to say ‘no’, let’s teach them how to hear and understand it.

Let’s move our bus stops, street lights, taxi ranks and invest a bucket tonne more money into women’s refuge, so that all women who need it, can use it safely.

Let’s get detailed and let’s get specific.

An obvious problem does not always have an obvious solution - and if a solution fits into a quick tweet, do we think it has been well thought out and well researched?

So, this is what I propose.

Next time a politician claims that longer sentences work, or they will put undercover officers to ‘protect women in pubs’ - let’s loudly ask, why?

With every proposed reform, either from the UK government or the Scottish Government, they simply must show their working.

What data have they used to assert that their solution will actually work?

What survey have they read, what groups and charities have they engaged with?

What part of the experience of women are you focusing on and fixing?

If real change is to happen, politicians need to be prepared to be radical, not to fall back on old cliches about sentencing, or virtue signalling about being harsher on criminals by slashing legal aid in the hope to appease their righteously furious voters, and save a bit of money on the side.

Beware of these quick fixes, and beware of politicians bearing gifts.

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