Anonymity for Rape Defendants?

Trigger Warning: Rape

The issue of rape and sexual assault has been big news in the last year, with convictions against formerly beloved presenter Rolf Harris, media spinster Max Clifford and the release of rapist Ched Evans on license. Given the increased scrutiny of public figures in the wake of the Jimmy Saville scandal, it was inevitable that the issue of defendant anonymity in cases of rape and sexual assault would rear its ugly head again. Not only is this debate a fundamental waste of precious time that could be better spent addressing our scandalously low rape conviction rates, it is also outright dangerous.

The last few years have seen a break on the decade’s long silence of the victims of opportunistic celebrities. These men hid in plain sight, relying on their status as national treasures to protect them from being exposed for what they truly are. Victims have included celebrities such as Vanessa Feltz and Linda Nolan. Even they felt powerless when faced with the challenge of exposing these beloved national treasures. What hope did less well known victims have? Would the case against Rolf Harris have made it anywhere near a courtroom if other victims had not seen the coverage and decided to come forward? The defendant doesn’t have to be a celebrity for this rule to apply. Would a conviction against “Black Cab Rapist” John Worboys have been secured without a public appeal for more victims to come forward?

Of course, there are cases where an arrest is made and no further action is taken. For the small number of men who are falsely accused, I cannot begin to imagine how difficult this must be. However is it worth letting guilty people walk free in order to protect the reputations of a small number of falsely accused men. But, wait a minute, aren’t all men accused of rape ostracised from their families and communities, never to work again? That’s what the tabloids would like us to believe, but just take a look at a few examples and you will see that this is not necessarily the case. Even men convicted of rape seem to be treated sympathetically. Coronation Street star Michael Le Vell was accused of sexual assault in 2011, but the charges were dropped due to insufficient evidence. Not only did he return to his previous role in the popular soap, The Sun printed a front page denouncement of his accuser, branding her “ Le Vell’s Devil Woman”(They covered her eyes with black dots in the picture though, we all know how committed The Sun are to victim anonymity). Ched Evans, who hasn’t even served his full sentence, is being fought over by football clubs for the privilege of having a convicted rapist play for them. Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond, the two young men charged with the rape of a fellow student in Steubenville, had their crimes covered up by locals scared that they would be too much of a loss to their high school football team. National media reported that two young men’s lived had been ruined. Their victim was demonised by the community.

Once we begin to take a look at some real life cases, we see a different story appear. Of course that is not to minimise the experience of anyone whose life has been affected by an unfounded allegation. The press does not treat those accused of rape kindly, and that is the crux of the issue. Our problem is not a lack of anonymity, but a media which encourages a kind of flames and pitchforks style mob mentality when it comes to alleged cases of sexual assault. Even the supposedly unbiased BBC are now in on the act, ordering cameras to Cliff Richards house after claims were made that he had sexually assaulted women while at the peak of his career. As the popular saying goes, sex (or rape in this case) sells, and no journalist is going to miss out on the shot of a scoop that big. But of course when the claims are not substantiated and the defendant released without charge, the nasty feminists are to blame for dragging a poor innocent man’s name through the mud. Making sense? No I don’t think so either.

This is not the first time we have had this debate. In fact, defendant anonymity was introduced in the 1976 Sexual Offences (amendment) Act. It was repealed in 1988 due to a lack of evidence that a rape accusation had any more effect on the defendant than accusations of other crimes. Victim anonymity remained in place, for good reason. You only have to look at the recent example of Ched Evan’s victim to see that. Not only has she had to move away from her home, she has also had to be given an entire new identity thanks to an internet hate campaign run by Ched Evans loyal fans.

One important fact has been side lined in favour of this debate. The fact that one in four women in the UK has been raped or sexually assaulted. While we have been busy debating anonymity for a small number of men, rape conviction rates have fallen in England and Wales. That should be enough to make us all rethink our strategy.
In the meantime, men are still more likely to be killed by an asteroid or comet than be falsely accused of rape. So guys, if you’ve been reading too many copies of The Sun and spend your life in constant fear of a false rape accusation, calm down. You’ll probably be fine.

In fact, men are more likely to be raped themselves than falsely accused of rape.

Now can we focus on what’s important please?

Can a Vaccine Really Eradicate Malaria?

Like most people who are interested in international development issues, I was excited to hear that a malaria vaccine could be ready to be administered by 2015. In medical terms, this is an incredible step towards eradicating malaria in the developing world. However, my recent experiences volunteering in rural Kenya brought a certain level of cynicism to my reaction. In political terms, how much impact will this actually have on those who need it the most?

I spent the summer volunteering in a rural village in Kenya. Whilst I was there I worked at a number of projects, including a local health centre. In order to ensure future volunteers are welcomed to the health centre in the same way we were, I will not be naming the health centre or the village in this blog. Myself and the other international volunteers spent a week at the clinic, and really did think we had seen everything there was to see. We spent time speaking to patients, learning how medical records are kept, how the laboratory is run and how medicines are dispensed. We were astonished by how much can be achieved with such limited resources. The dispensary provided free malaria tablets, anti-retroviral drugs to HIV sufferers and free HIV testing. All of this is funded by aid from the UK and USA.

Unfortunately my positivity was not meant to last. As we began our public health education programme in the community, it became clear that locals were being charged for these supposedly free health services. Many of them did not realise that they were not supposed to be charged for these services; even more knew but did not feel they could do anything about the situation.

In light of these experiences, I find it hard to believe that the malaria vaccine will have a significant effect on international development. Will the vaccination ever make it to the people who need it the most? Even if it does, how much will locals be charged for their “free” vaccination? In the current situation, it is likely that the biggest achievement of a malaria vaccination will be ridding western travellers of the inconvenience of malaria tablets.

So if western medical advancement and international aid are not the answer to public health issues, we must ask ourselves, what is the answer?

Unfortunately there is no clear cut answer to the problem of corruption. If we withdraw international aid, it is likely that the treatments will not reach the clinics at all, and we risk a lost generation dying of treatable illness while the country sorts out its corruption issues. We could direct aid money towards anti-corruption organisations, but will the benefits ever reach those in rural villages such as the one I visited? There is no clear conclusion to reach. However from my experiences I have concluded one thing. The answer must lie with the local people and communities.

No major social change has ever been achieved by a man sitting behind a desk. You only have to take a look at recent history to see this. The civil rights movement, uprisings in the satellite states, the Arab spring. All examples of ordinary people standing up and speaking out for what they believe in. Politics is not about politicians, it is about people. I am not naïve enough to believe that the community I visited can solve all their problems with no outside intervention. However action by locals seems like a pretty good place to start. Only they really have the power to stand up and demand change in their own communities.

Goodbye for now…

So for the next 8 weeks I won’t be blogging. The reason for this. I am about to spend 8 weeks living in a rural Kenyan village, volunteering at some fantastic projects. Right now i’m feeling an odd mixture of nerves and excitement. Like most people in the UK, everything I know about Africa I got from comic relief or the lion king. I’m definitely looking forward to experiencing this first hand (and having my misconceptions put right while i’m at!).

The plus side of this short break from the blogging world, I shall have some fantastic blogs to write when I return. I will see you all then!

Observations on modern day Australia

Whilst flicking through my diary from the backpacking trip I took to Australia when I was 18, I came across an interesting peice I wrote on the treatment of Aboriginals in modern Australia. If I remember correctly I had finished my book and had an hour long boat trip back from the Great Barrier Reef to fill. So as every good politics geek would, I decided to write! I thought it would be interesting to post this. I have decided to post it exactly as I wrote it 2 years ago, warts and all. So here it is, an observation on modern Australia by an 18 year old traveller.

“In the excitement of the last few days I forgot to mention something interesting from my tour of the Atherton Tablelands. My tour guide was aboriginal. In an ideal world this would not seem that remarkable, but it is the first time I have seen an aboriginal Australian leading a tour which was not to do with aboriginal culture. He told us that in the eighties his family was run off their land by the Australian government, who resented them being self sufficient and making their own money. I found this particuarly interesting, as all I have been hearing since I arrived in Australia is backpackers and locals alike bemoaning aboriginals for accepting government handouts while ordinary Australians work hard for their money. Surely stories like the one my tour guide told show how it was infact previous governments who created this culture? It seems to me that after years of persecution and being punished for any form of reward gained from work, their is a resentment of the government expecting aboriginals to contribute to the modern day economy. It is interesting that in the South, I did not see any aboriginal people. In Sydney, they can only be seen on Circular Quay playing a didgeridoo to entertain the tourists. Yet aboriginal art and culture fills the souvenir shops. The north is quite a contrast. Aboriginal people can be seen everywhere. Unfortunately, it is not a pretty picture. There seems to be a huge problem with alcohol and homelessness. Every local I speak to has a different story about aboriginal crime. But no one is asking why. These social problems are no coincidence. People seem to have forgotten the horrors aboriginals have been subjected to by those who now call Australia home. Some argue that this no longer matters, as Australian immigrants have apologised and accepted the native Australians into their culture. But this is exactly the point. Aboriginals have been forced to find their place in a society created by those who stole their land. You could say this is exactly what they have done.

People seem to forget that the persecution these people face is not a distant hazy memory. It occured only 20 to 30 years ago. If you consider that World War Two, The Cold War and the American civil rights movement, which still evoke emotion from many, happened almost 20 years before the incident my tour guide referred to, this argument begins to lose its validity. I have been disgusted not only by the locals attitude towards the aboriginals, but also how easily backpackers will blindly buy into this viewpoint. Despite the distaste that may be held towards aboriginals, it is still seen as acceptable to use the aboriginal culture which European immigrants destroyed to fuel the tourist industry. This in itself disgusts me.”

Does the developed world really need feminism?

The most common criticism thrown at feminists in the west is that there are bigger problems we should be dealing with. Some would like to believe that feminsm has done its job in western society. Some even seem to think that the pendulum has swung, and that feminsm has gone too far. This view is quite frankly ridiculous.

The first wave of feminism fought for political rights. The second wave attempted to make “the personal the political”, fighting for social rights. Modern day feminists face an entirely different battle. We need to change attitudes. How can we claim that feminism is no longer needed, when women are still paid less than men for doing the same job. When society still tells women that they are mothers first, and that their careers must take a back seat. Sexual harrassment (as seen recently in the case of Lord Rennard) is still rife in workplaces. While 70% of MP’s are male. While crimes against women still form the butt of jokes, and victims are blamed for rape and domestic violence.

As a woman living in the west, I am fortunate. I have the right to education, access to contraception, the choice of who to marry and what happens to my body. However this does not mean that there is nothing to fight for. Critics are perfectly correct. A man shouting at me to get my tits out is not as bad as a girl being forced into marriage in the third world. However this does not mean that I should accept it.

In order to pick this argument apart, lets apply this logic to some other situations. You are standing in a shop, holding a twenty pound note. You see a jacket that you think makes you look really cool. Do you buy the jacket, or do you give the money to charity as there are many people in the world more in need than you? No matter how moral you feel, I can tell you that most people reading this would not think twice about buying the jacket.

Another example. You give money to comic relief. The money you give goes to a young carers charity. This charity provides fun days out for young carers and a place to meet other kids in the same position. Do you complain, insisting that your money goes to someone who is living in true abject poverty, or do you accept that your money has gone a to a valuable cause. It may not be the most severe problem in the world, but it makes a difference nonetheless.

I could provide many more examples like this, but I think the point is made. In a developed country in the 21st century, there is no excuse for women not to be treated as equal to men. It is perfectly possible to fight for equal rights in the UK and abroad. After all, the bigger the feminist movement the more successful it will be.

If the feminist movement is going to be successful, the first thing we need to realise is that we still need it. We need to realise that when a man shouts at a woman to get her tits out, that feeds into the bigger problems in society. If we do not demand respect in all areas of life, how can we expect it when it is really needed? There is no shame in identifying as a feminist, and it is high time we all started shouting back.

Rape Culture and the No More Page 3 Campaign

One of the many fantastic things about the no more page 3 campaign is our diversity. We have supporters from all walks of life. Men, Women, middle class, working class, university students, mothers, I could go on. Consequently, we have a range of perspectives and experiences to bring to the table. As a young woman, my main motivation for supporting the end of page 3 is rape culture. For the simple reason that I believe I have the right to dress as I please, without this being seen as a sexual invitation. Unfortunately, this is one of the most misunderstood arguments. It is about time this misunderstanding was cleared up. What do I mean when I refer to rape culture?

Before I start, I feel it is necessary to clear up the difference between rape and rape culture. Rape is an act of sexual violence towards an unwilling partner. Rape culture is very different. It refers to a society where the word rape has lost all meaning, thrown around carelessly in everyday language. A society where it is acceptable to make jokes about rape, as if this topic could ever be seen as humorous to the millions who have suffered this horrific crime. A society where a woman’s sexual history is referred to in a rape trial, and where politicians such as George Galloway describe rape as nothing but “bad sexual etiquette”.

Now that this has been explained, it should be clear that when I make a link between page 3 and rape culture, I am not saying that page 3 is a cause of rape. Of course sexual assault has been around for far longer than page 3. I am not suggesting that a man would look at page 3 and then decide that he should rape a woman. After all, rape is nothing to do with sex. It is an act of violence. sex is merely the chosen weapon. On many occasions I have been accused of making excuses for rapists. People assume that I am somehow taking away blame from the rapist, by claiming page 3 made them do it. This is not true.If anything, this campaign and the feminist movement as a whole are attempting to put blame back where it belongs, with the rapist and no one else.

In our society victim blaming is far too common. In a study by Amnesty International, 27% of respondents thought that a woman was partially responsible for sexual assault if she was wearing revealing clothing. A third of respondents believed that a woman was partially responsible for rape if she behaved in a flirtatious manner. We live in a society where a significant proportion of the population believes that non-consensual sex is not always rape. Why is this opinion so widespread?

It is clear that something is going wrong. The UK has a pitifully low rape conviction rate. The majority of rapes are not even reported. Ask yourself this. Does a daily picture of a topless woman, posing in a sexualised manner in a newspaper, help to change attitudes in society? Don’t you think that maybe, pictures of apparently sexually available woman in the newspaper might contribute to the wider opinion that a scantily dressed woman is asking for rape? Women are presented as sexually available objects in the mainstream media, alongside pictures of men in suits running countries. Most critics have claimed that society can distinguish between these two images; that these images have no effect on attitudes towards women in wider society. As long as we still have people in our society who hold damaging attitudes towards rape and sexual assault, it is evident that some people cannot make this distinction.

The end of page 3 will not end rape culture. However it is a step in the right direction. A step we need to take.

What is a welfare state for?

I was interested to hear of Ed Balls plans to scrap winter fuel allowance for more affluent pensioners, not only due to the policy itself, but also its implications. Whether he intended to or not, Ed Balls has opened a pandora’s box. This policy raises one fundamental question which is likely to define the political landscape of the UK in the forthcoming months. What is the function of a welfare state?

The public reaction to this policy announcement was depressingly predictable. Cries of “but it’s my turn!” and “I’ve contributed all my life” could be heard across the country. But in a welfare state is there really such a thing as “my turn”? The function of a welfare state is to provide public services and prevent anyone from falling below the poverty line. Welfare is distributed on the basis of need, not net contributions.

At times like these, it is important to remember the many benefits we are all entitled to. We all benefit from 11 years of free compulsory schooling, with 2 more years available for those who choose to take advantage of this. We have access to student loans to subsidise university education. We receive treatment from a National Health Service which is free at the point of use. New mothers are entitled to statutory maternity pay. Many of us have access to child benefit to help with the costs of raising our children. Most importantly, we are all entitled to the same out of work benefits, available to anyone who falls on hard times. Taking this into account, is there really such a thing as “my turn”?

If our welfare state is under such a strain that we cannot afford to pay jobseekers allowance to our unemployed, or disability benefit to those unable to work, then we most certainly cannot afford to pay the heating bills of those who could easily afford to cover this cost. Thus far, the young have been the biggest victims of spending cuts. If there are to be cuts, it is not feasible, nor is it fair, for those of working age to bear the entire burden of these.

With unemployment and underemployment still widespread in Britain, it is high time that we all remembered that no one is immune from poverty. In such an unpredictable economic climate, no job is truly safe. Thankfully, we can all rely on the welfare state as a safety net in hard times. This is, after all, the purpose of our welfare state. With this in mind, there really is no such thing as your turn. We all take from the state and we are all entitled to support. To those of you who feel that it is your turn to benefit from the welfare state, without a doubt I can tell you that you always have.

Less mudslinging, more politics please

Like many young people, the Obama presidential campaign in 2008 was the first event to really spark my interest in politics. Obama spoke with passion and conviction. Watching him made me feel like a part of monumental change, like we no longer had to accept the status quo. His policies, most notably universal healthcare, seemed to challenge all of the perceptions I had regarding American politics.

Only a year and a half later, we were treated to one of the most exciting British elections in recent history. For the first time in my memory, an election seemed like a real fight for the votes of the British public. Gordon Brown seemed to stand for everything I believed in. As much as I disagreed with his politics, David Cameron spoke with conviction about the policies he felt passionately about. Then Nick Clegg emerged as a real contender during the televised debates, bringing the Lib Dems out of the fringes of party politics. The election may not have had the result I had hoped for, but I most certainly enjoyed the journey.

Looking back on this era in politics, I begin to wonder what has gone wrong in recent years. Politics both North and South of the border, and across the Atlantic, seems to have descended into a game of political mudslinging. Obama may have won a second term in 2012, but it could not live up to his triumphant 2008 victory. The presidential campaign was characterised by vicious attacks by one candidate on the character of their opponent. Similarly, to date neither side of the Scottish independence debate have set out a clear argument. Despite this, both sides seem to have an abundance of opinions on their opponents and their respective donor lists. Prime Ministers questions has descended into a farce. A desperate fight for the sound bite in Thursdays copy of the Sun. What has gone wrong?

While the economy is still suffering from the effects of our worst recession since the great depression, and half a million rely on food banks for their next meal, is this really the best that politicians can offer? It is time we heard some policy, not rhetoric. Let’s talk about issues.

I look forward to the 2015 election with curiosity rather than excitement. Will one of the party leaders pull a Nick Clegg on us and emerge as a late frontrunner? Will the prospect of an election give the party leaders the motivation they need to take a real stance on the issues? Call me cynical, but at present, I doubt it.

Woolwich. How innocent is the West?

Since the attack in Woolwich last week, there have been countless blogs and opinion pieces written on the subject. I plan to take a slightly different slant on the issue. In the aftermath of the attack, as the first reactions began to appear on my twitter and facebook, one thing in particular resonated with me. References to Australia and Julia Gillard’s stance on immigration were a recurring theme. In particular, a speech where she states that Australia is “our country, our lifestyle and our land” was shared on my facebook news feed multiple times.

During a trip to Australia 2 years ago, I came across this plaque on circular quay, Sydney harbour. It states that

“”Australia is my birthplace but I cannot call it my own as well as my native land, for I have no right to live there. Until a treaty is agreed with the original inhabitants, I shall be homeless in the world”

I could not help but think back to this quotation while reading the speech in question. Gillard states that the land, country and culture belong to the Australian people, and that any immigrant must agree to live according to that culture. Considering the treatment of aboriginal Australians not only during the colonisation of Australia, but up to the present day, this speech seems misguided at best. In fact in modern day Australia the original inhabitants have been forced to live in the society created by the descendants of those who stole their land. This post is not intended to be an attack on Australia or its people. It is intended to make us think. Western society and culture is not as innocent as we like to think. Perhaps the answer to terrorism is not to attack immigrants or impose our culture or religion on others. Indeed at least one of the Woolwich murderers was born and raised in Britain. Perhaps, we should have a think about how the way we treat immigrants may prevent them from fully integrating into our society? Perhaps if we stopped discriminating and started treating others as individuals, people would not be as susceptible to extremism. I am not naïve. There will always be people in this world who wish to harm others. We cannot change this. What we can change is our reaction to these crimes. The attackers claimed they wanted to start a war. By targeting immigrants, we give them exactly what they wanted.

What I have learnt from Emily Wilding Davison

I just finished watching Secrets of a Suffragette on channel 4, and I thought this was as good a subject as any to base my first blog post on.  The documentary focused on famous suffragette Emily Wilding Davison, and her dramatic and ultimately fatal act of defiance in the name of female suffrage, running in front of the Kings horse at the Epsom derby. It goes without saying that this was a defining moment of the fight for female suffrage. However it was the wider themes of this documentary that truly caught my attention. Suffragettes were subjected to unspeakable horrors. The force feeding which occurred as part of the cat and mouse act is common knowledge. However, until today I was unaware of the events of Black Friday. Three hundred women descended upon the House of Commons in a peaceful protest. There, they were met by police, and subjected to horrific beatings and sexual assaults by both police officers and passing men. Thankfully, today not only do women have the vote, but these actions are widely condemned. However, the feminist movement is far from over. Both the Everyday sexism project and the No more page 3 campaign have been gaining increasing publicity in recent months. With increased exposure comes an increasing voice of opposition. Healthy debate is obviously to be encouraged. However, in my experience the healthy debate is far outweighed by the uninformed and outright nasty abuse which supporters of these causes are subjected to on such a regular basis. You may ask, what does this have to do with the channel four documentary I referred to at the beginning of this post? The point I am trying to make is that opposition to any cause is not only to be expected, it is actually beneficial. Nothing worth having ever comes easy. The feminist movement today is not asking for legislation. It is aiming for a monumental shift in society’s attitudes towards women. In some ways this is a more difficult task than the achievement of female suffrage. If we ignore the comments of those who disagree, we will never achieve this aim. In order for women’s position in society to improve, behaviour which is offensive towards women must become socially unacceptable. This will never happen until feminist men and women alike have the courage to stand up to those who oppose them. We will not get anywhere by censoring the opinions of those who disagree. I find the horrors endured by the Suffragettes in the name of their cause truly inspiring. They stuck to their principles in the face of physical and sexual abuse, force feeding and even death. I am sure I can do the same when the worst abuse I will face is being called a lesbian or a feminazi. One thing is clear. Emily Wilding Davison did not die in vain, and feminism is not going anywhere.