Susan Dalgety: Data is power and can help change society for the better

The British treenager covers her faces as she leaves  the Famagusta court after her trial on Monday. The 19 year-old was found guilty of fabricating claims that she was gang raped by 12 men. Picture: AP Photo/Philippos Christou
The British treenager covers her faces as she leaves the Famagusta court after her trial on Monday. The 19 year-old was found guilty of fabricating claims that she was gang raped by 12 men. Picture: AP Photo/Philippos Christou
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Trying to make the world a bit safer for girls like the teenager who faces prison in Cyprus for standing up for herself is not exclusionary, or right wing, or uncaring, writes Susan Dalgety

A photograph has haunted me all week. It is of a teenage girl, dressed casually in a tracksuit, a colourful scarf hiding her face, being led into a Cyprus court, where she is about to hear her fate.

Her crime? Last July, the young British tourist accused 12 men of gang-raping her in the party resort of Aya Napa. But she retracted her original statement during a fraught trial, where apparently the male judge didn’t attempt to hide his disdain for her.

The young men were found not guilty, despite forensic evidence that was consistent with gang-rape. Then a few days ago, five months after the attack, the teenage girl was found guilty – by the same angry judge – of “indulging in public mischief”.

She will be sentenced on Tuesday and could face up to a year in prison and a 1,500 euro fine. Her mother is already thousands in debt from protecting her child, and the girl has lost her first year place at university.

She has begged Boris Johnson to save her, and her terrible plight has angered women across Cyprus as well as here.

A crowd-funder for her legal fees has raised £115,000 and is still growing. There is even a social media campaign #BoycottCyprus urging people to cancel their holiday on the sunshine island.

I am not privy to the case, so cannot, with any certainty, say whether or not the girl is telling the truth.

But leading women’s campaigner and writer, Julie Bindel, met her recently and wrote afterwards, “I’ve written and campaigned on behalf of scores of women who’ve been raped and sexually violated this past 40 years, so I know trauma coming from this experience when I see it. Three weeks ago, I met the woman at the heart of the Cyprus atrocity and I am telling you, she was raped.” I believe Julie.

According to the World Health Organisation, more than one in three women across the world will experience physical or sexual assault in their lifetime. I humbly suggest that figure is higher.

Many women, and I speak with authority, are too frightened, or insecure, or worried about the backlash, to make a formal complaint.

We dust ourselves down and file the incident away at the back of our mind as “one of those terrible things we are only to think about when we are really low.” But of course we think about it far more than that.

Sexual assault changes a woman. It makes her more wary of men – even though the majority would never dream of attacking someone.

It weakens her confidence, it can break her spirit. And it will haunt her for the rest of her life, because deep down in her soul she will ask herself, “Could I have done more to prevent it happening. Did I give off the wrong signals? Was it my fault?”

There is no other crime like it, where the victim has to prove her innocence, first to the police and prosecution, then to a judge and jury. Worse, she has to prove it to herself.

Here in Scotland, incidents of sexual crime are going up, and Scottish government figures show that they now stand at their highest level in 50 years. In 2018–19, nearly 3,000 rapes and 13,500 sexual assaults were reported.

And figures from 2016 show that almost half (43 per cent) of sexual crimes relate to a girl under the age of 18. Just think about that for a moment. Almost half the victims are children.

I don’t, for one minute, think there has been a sudden epidemic in sexual crimes. The male human has always been predatory, it is how the patriarchy survives.

It is just that women are now more likely to report sex crimes because Scotland, like the rest of the UK, has become much better at supporting women who have been attacked.

In recent years, our society has made a deliberate effort to believe all women, and provide them with the support necessary to survive their ordeal from the moment they report it.

Every one of Police Scotland’s 14 local divisions has a Rape Investigation Unit, with specially trained officers on hand. And the police work closely with women’s organisations such as Rape Crisis Scotland to ensure that a woman gets the emotional as well as judicial support she requires.

But even in Scotland, where there has been significant progress, it still takes an immense amount of courage to, first, report the crime, and then to go through with the ordeal of a trial, even if they are much better run in Edinburgh than they are in Famagusta.

Every women and girl who speaks out deserves their sisters’ eternal gratitude. If it were not for those courageous women, then far more of us would be at risk of assault.

And combatting sexual crimes is just one of the many reasons why data about men and women matters.

I note that the National Records of Scotland has once again suggested that when we complete the 2021 census, we should fill in the male/female question according to our gender identity rather than our legal sex status.

Let me repeat for the sake of some of my dear male friends (who happen to be gay), and are increasingly upset by the tone of women’s voices as we argue for our rights, that we do not care how anyone identifies.

What makes us upset, angry even, is the threat to our hard-won rights, such as better support for victims of sex crimes, that comes from distorted data.

As philanthropist Melinda Gates wrote recently, “there isn’t a country on earth where women have achieved true equality… but no matter where you are in the world, understanding these barriers is the first step to dismantling them, and that requires a concerted effort to gather better data about women…

“…Without that data we cannot design effective policies or interventions to meet women’s needs. Data is power.”

This is why the data the Scottish government collects should be based on the reality of sex, not how someone feels about their identity at any given time in their lives.

Our government, the police and judiciary, scientists and medics need to know how many women and girls there are in Scotland, because the needs of women and girls are often different to those of men and boys, and yes, of trans men and women.

We are not being exclusionary, or right wing, or uncaring when we say data is power. We are simply trying to make the world a bit safer for girls like the young teenager who faces prison for standing up for herself. Believe us.