We are going backwards. The number of reported rapes that result in convictions has long been alarmingly low. But the state of rape prosecutions in England and Wales is now an outrage and a national shame. The number of people prosecuted and convicted is at its lowest on record, while reported cases have risen sharply. Prosecutions more than halved from 5,190 in 2016-17 to only 2,102 in 2019-20. Meanwhile, the police recorded 55,130 rapes, up from 41,616 three years earlier.
Campaigners and the victims’ commissioner, Vera Baird, say this effectively amounts to decriminalisation. The Crown Prosecution Service notes that the police are referring fewer cases. But they have made clear their concerns that the CPS has moved to a more risk-averse approach. Though the service insists it has not changed tack, the drop in prosecutions coincided with advice from senior CPS figures to specialist rape prosecutors to “put a touch on the tiller” and take a proportion of “weak cases out of the system”, amid criticism of the low conviction rate. That rate has indeed now risen. But the total number of convictions dropped, from 2,991 to 1,439. More rapists are free in the community.
While the CPS blueprint for improvements has some sensible recommendations, such as training specialist prosecutors to understand tactics employed by offenders and victim behaviour, they are insufficient, and the five-year timescale too leisurely. The government’s review into the handling of rape in the criminal justice system should adopt recommendations made by Northern Ireland’s Gillen review, including legal representation for complainants and providing the jury with guidance on rape myths in every trial.
Above all, we need leaders to show that women’s safety is a priority. Women’s ability to control and protect their own bodies is regressing across the globe. The attack on reproductive rights has gone hand in hand with damage to the most fundamental right to physical safety. It is not only long-established laws and policies but also relatively recent advances that face challenge. In part, this is a backlash against hard-won progress. It also reflects the role that misogyny has played in the rise of the populist right, though it is hardly unique to it. Poland is threatening to leave a treaty aimed at preventing violence against women – at a time when the pandemic has seen domestic violence soar worldwide – after President Andrzej Duda narrowly won re-election with a socially conservative and homophobic campaign. In the US, the justice department rewrote its definition of domestic violence last year, producing much more restrictive terms that disregard elements such as psychological abuse.
But rightwing governments are not the only culprits. In 2017, France passed a landmark street harassment law, and Emmanuel Macron urged other countries to make women’s rights a “great global cause”. Yet the president’s new justice minister, Éric Dupond-Moretti, is an outspoken opponent of the street harassment law and the #MeToo movement, and Mr Macron has appointed a man accused of rape as interior minister. An appeals court in Paris has told prosecutors to reopen their probe into Gérald Darmanin, who denies any wrongdoing; a judge had dismissed the case against him after a preliminary investigation was dropped.
Complacency and banal political or bureaucratic imperatives can damage women’s lives just as ideologically driven campaigns can. This is a particularly dangerous period, where the impact of the pandemic absorbs attention that might be paid to other issues, and the economic crisis makes people more vulnerable to abuse.
Yet thousands have marched in Warsaw and other Polish cities, outraged by their government’s plan to withdraw from the treaty. Protesters took to the streets in France over Mr Macron’s appointments. And this month the CPS and police were forced to drop the “digital strip search” policy that had made women in England and Wales divulge all their mobile phone data, following sustained campaigning and a legal challenge from two complainants. It is enraging to be forced to refight the same old battles, yet progress can and is being made. Women have every right to despair, but are refusing to do so. There is too much work to be done.