On 8 March, International Women’s Day, 25-year-old Fern Champion, who was raped in 2016, has launched a petition, and written to the Prime Minister asking her to ensure there is always specialist rape counselling support available for everyone who seeks it.
Fern, who has waived her anonymity to put her name and face to the petition, was raped repeatedly one night by a stranger while she was travelling overseas. The attacker was never caught, but when Fern returned home to the UK and sought counselling, she was told her local Rape Crisis Centre’s waiting list was closed due to a funding shortfall.
Fern tried repeatedly to get counselling over the next eight months at several centres but always found they were full and unable to help. Her mental health seriously deteriorated and she faced a potential crisis, but was unexpectedly, and unusually, offered support by her private sector employer.
“Nearly two years on from the attack I was experiencing severe stress, lack of sleep, migraines and I was having flashbacks during my sleep which had started to creep into my waking hours too. I was self-medicating on alcohol just to get by. Every time I tried and couldn’t get help, my mental health spiralled further beyond my control until suddenly I just couldn’t go on any longer.
“What happened to me – my employer stepping in – is very unusual. When I called Rape Crisis, I expected there to be a waiting list but I didn’t expect that I wouldn’t even be able to get on to that waiting list. It infuriates me to think that there are still survivors out there unable to access the support they need due to a lack of funding. To be frank, why should we care about funding? We were raped. That was not our fault and yet we continue to be punished for it by not even being allowed to recover from it.
“By not adequately funding support services this Government is telling survivors that their recovery does not matter and by extension that they do not matter. When you have been raped – when someone else has deeply harmed you and you are left with the trauma and pain – the vital, life-saving counselling should just be there when you need it. I urge people to sign my petition and demand once and for all that Theresa May guarantees sustained funding for rape crisis support services, so the survivors of sexual violence can at last access the long term, individual support they need. I am very happy to meet Theresa May if that is what is needed.”
A 2018 YouGov survey for the End Violence Against Women Coalition found that a majority of people consider access to counselling more important than access to the police and courts process for survivors of rape. And, the vast majority of people (82%) recognise that sexual violence has an impact on mental health. Significantly, 60% of people believe that access to free counselling is already available for rape survivors. This is not the case. In March 2018 there were 6,355 survivors on Rape Crisis waiting lists. A number expected to have increased this year with the ever-growing demand for support services.
Maggie Parks, CEO of The Women’s Centre in Cornwall which provides a range of sexual violence support services to women from all over the county, said:
“We have decades of experience in what we do, providing specialist, tailored support for women in immediate crisis and those who were abused many years ago. We offer a range of therapies which enable women to rebuild their sense of self and begin to take back control of their lives. Despite the known need for and value of our work and being recognised as an ‘exemplary organisation’ we struggle every year to get funding. Lurching from funding crisis to funding crisis with ever increasing waiting lists is destabilising and demoralising for all concerned and leaves many women and girls in our communities vulnerable and at risk. With demand for our services going through the roof as more women begin to name what has happened to them and seek support, we need to ensure we are sustainable and offering services to them as long they need us. The funding postcode must stop.”
Lucy Hayton, Centre Manager of West London Rape Crisis says:
“For all of us working at the West London Rape Crisis Centre, Fern’s story is unfortunately all too familiar. Due to limited resources, we are sometimes faced with the terrible decision as to whether we should close our waiting lists or keep them open until they reach unmanageable levels. This is due to an absence of funding. Unfortunately society is not doing enough to honour survivors’ bravery in speaking out against sexual violence and abuse by failing to provide even a fraction of the resources required to support their total and sustainable recovery. We must do better.”
Fern’s letter to the Prime Minister asks for a meeting with her to discuss the appalling absence of adequate funding to specialist independent services in the community. It cites the Istanbul Convention (which the Government will soon ratify) which sets out a minimum provision of support for victims of rape. There needs to be 150 but there are currently only 44 Rape Crisis centres in England and Wales. To meet the standards of the Istanbul Convention, the government needs to invest a minimum of £195 million into specialist independent, community based provision, with a significant proportion ring-fenced for specialist BME services that understand the particular barriers to reporting and help-seeking among those who are marginalised.
Sarah Green, Co-Director of End Violence Against Women Coalition, which is supporting Fern’s petition said:
“No part of government has ever stepped up and made the guaranteed funding of community-based rape counselling services their responsibility. This is an appalling abandonment of survivors. The current government has seen fit to leave the decision about whether to fund vital and life-saving rape counselling services to a mix of local commissioners including cash-strapped local councils, PCCs and health boards.
“Times are changing. There has been a huge change in the way our society perceives and understands sexual violence. Women and men who are survivors of rape are seeking help and speaking out like never before (4). It is unconscionable that as a society we should fail to ensure such services are open and sustainable.”
Dr Rosena Allin-Khan, Labour MP for Tooting, said:
“Rape Crisis Centres offer much needed support to people who have been assaulted across England and Wales but at present, demand far outweighs supply. Waiting lists are full. The Prime Minister needs to ensure that support services are properly funded so no one is left to fall through the cracks. I continue to be inspired by Fern’s determination to ensure that no one else will experience the feeling of requesting help, but finding nowhere to turn.”
The Home Office VAWG Strategy sets out their 2020 aim that no victim would be turned away from accessing critical support services delivered by rape support centres. They will fail to achieve this unless there is immediate and urgent political attention to this issue at both local and national level.
This week the Government announced an end to end review of the criminal justice system’s response to rape and sexual violence. This is because despite the huge increase in the numbers of women reporting rape to the police over the last five years there has been a collapse in the rate of cases being charged.