This is the joint website of  Women Against Rape and Black Women's Rape Action Project. Both organisations are based on self-help and provide support, legal information and advocacy. We campaign for justice and protection for all women and girls, including asylum seekers, who have suffered sexual, domestic and/or racist violence.

WAR was founded in 1976. It has won changes in the law, such as making rape in marriage a crime, set legal precedents and achieved compensation for many women. BWRAP was founded in 1991. It focuses on getting justice for women of colour, bringing out the particular discrimination they face. It has prevented the deportation of many rape survivors. Both organisations are multiracial.

 

 

 

Open letter to Jack Straw

Dear Home Secretary Jack Straw,
Re: excluding victims’ sexual history from rape trials

We are very concerned about the ordeal victims of rape experience in court, reflected in the alarming fall in the conviction rate. Women describe court as a "second rape" because they, not the accused, are effectively put "on trial". In most cases the accused claims the woman consented, and defence barristers trawl through her sexual or medical history in order to discredit her evidence that she didn’t consent. Women are routinely cross-examined about sexual abuse in childhood, whether they were sexually active before 16, when they last had sex, how they dress, abortions, contraception, menstrual cycle, the number and race of previous boyfriends, whether they drink, take tranquilisers or other drugs . . . Even children are not protected from such deeply prejudiced questions. The evidence presented in this way invites the jury to decide not whether a person was raped but whether she is entitled to the law’s protection.

The problem is not that defendants have too many rights, as some people imply, but that victims don’t have enough. Judges are supposed to protect witnesses from unfair and irrelevant questioning; yet in most trials they permit it. Research shows that nearly three quarters of women raped by acquaintances whose cases reach court are questioned about sex with men other than the defendant. In the few cases where judges rule out such questions and the man is convicted, Appeal Court judges frequently set him free.

The 1991 criminalisation of rape in marriage finally established that the issue in every rape trial where identity is not in doubt is consent, not whether a woman has slept with the accused or anyone else in the past. The successful private prosecution brought by two women in 1995 further confirmed that all women have the right to say no, regardless of their sexual history. When the law in New South Wales (Australia) restricted judges’ discretion to allow such questions as part of a package of reforms, reporting and conviction rates rose significantly. In Scotland also questioning has been limited but judges can allow any questions they think are "in the interests of justice". This has shown itself not firm enough to be effective.

The sexual history of the accused is not raised – even if he has convictions for it. Why is the victim’s? A woman’s sexual history is not relevant to whether she consented to sex on that occasion. It is time to take the discretion out of judges’ hands, so that women’s sexual history can no longer be used to prejudice and misdirect juries. This would be a major step towards redressing the sexism, racism and other prejudices in the legal process which result in the denial of justice to rape survivors. We urge with Women Against Rape that:

in Section 2(1) of the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1976, which forbids evidence or cross-examination by or on behalf of a defendant about a complainant’s sexual experience, the words "except with the leave of the judge" be deleted.

 

endorsed by over 200 women's, Black, and other community organisations

July 1998

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