Following three reports of rape made to the PSNI last weekend, the BBC is today reporting that this brings the total number of rapes reported to the police in the last year to 525. That is more than 10 a week. In fact its about 3 every 2 days, as in another 6 victims by this Friday. In the year from 2009/2010 there were about 440 (PSNI statistics) so the numbers are going up dramatically. By way of comparison, in Ireland where the population is three times higher, there were 479 rapes reported in 2010.
Now it is possible that a rise in reporting rates actually suggests greater confidence in reporting to police. Unfortunately in 2010/2011 the detection rate for rape was just 13.5%. Conviction rates are not easy to come by but in 2008 Patrick Corrigan stated that just 3% of rapes in Northern Ireland resulted in conviction. I’m not sure why that would link to a rise in confidence in reporting rape but then I don’t believe that a specific study has been done on that.
There is so much that is disturbing about these figures. First of all this is most likely not an accurate picture of the true levels of rape in Northern Ireland. Under-reporting of sexual offences is a well-documented phenomenon, for a multiplicity of reasons including the private and invasive nature of the act, the victims relationship with the offender which can often breed fear as to the consequences of reporting, as well as unwillingness to speak out, whether out of a belief that nothing will happen or because the victim does not want to endure a trial. The reality is that rape happens in Northern Ireland more often than this, more often that 3 every 2 days.
It is disturbing to think of so many people, predominantly woman, suffering all the consequences of rape. There are the physical repercussions such as any actual bodily harm caused by the rape, infections, STIs, STDs (including fear of diseases such as HIV) and the possibility of pregnancy. The psychological effects are also immense, with fear, anxiety, depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder all common place. And there’s the harm felt by their families and loved ones, if they bring themselves to share their ordeal with them.
A question that has to be asked is why are levels of rape so high in Northern Ireland? Is it emblematic of engrained attitudes to gender and sex? In 2008 Amnesty International conducted a survey of university students in Northern Ireland. The results were shocking. Absolutely shocking:
- 46% of students thought that a women who had been raped was partially or totally to blame if she had been acting flirtatiously;
- 44% felt the same way if the woman was drunk;
- 30% if she was wearing sexy or revealing clothing;
- 10% felt that it was acceptable for a man to hit his girlfriend or partner if she had flirted with another man;
- 9% thought it acceptable to hit her if she nagged.
That so many young people at that level of education could apportion blame on a woman for rape because she flirts, drinks or wears revealing clothing is disturbing (I feel like I’m using this word a lot, but I guess that because all of this is very disturbing). At the same time as this view is sexist and suggests that women should not engage in such activities, it also limits the amount of blame attributed to a person who has sex with someone against their will. Violence against women should be seen as wrong, irrespective of the circumstances and yet our educated young people do not appear to appreciate that.
In recent years the Rape Crisis Centre in Scotland has tried to target these very attitudes with what I think is a very effective television campaign. Its worth noting at this point that the Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Centre for Northern Ireland is massively underfunded and has been at risk of closure for the last number of years (there is a button to donate at this link).
So we have significantly high levels of rape in Northern Ireland, poor conviction rates, a failure to appreciate the nature of violence against woman, and an underfunded support network for victims of rape. Rape Crisis Centres in other jurisdictions have also been responsible for raising the profile of these issues and challenging social attitudes but that’s next to impossible to do with so little funding.
It has been said before that how rape is discussed, challenged and investigated in Northern Ireland needs a radical overhaul. Apparently it needs to be said again.