Rape and sexual violence support: Time to stick my oar in

Me with Jill Saward on the Mount of the Beatitudes, overlooking the Sea of Galilee.

When Jill Saward died in January, I lost my wife; my sons lost their mother; her siblings lost a sister; her nephews and nieces lost an aunt. That loss is real. And it is palpable.

But another group of people lost something too: some members of this group met her; many didn’t. And the group is growing all the time. New people are being added to this group every day. The group is victims and survivors of sexual violence. And what they have lost is a voice.

There are, of course, many people and individuals speaking up for those who have suffered sexual violence. But their voices, alone, are not enough. There have been several occasions over the past six months when something has happened and I thought: “Jill would have something to say about this.”

The loss of Jill Saward’s voice in the market place of ideas about sexual violence is also real and palpable.

A few years ago, in April 2011, Jill spoke out against funding cuts to a Liverpool-based rape and sexual violence support service. It was just one of many across the country facing budget cuts but one that Jill was particularly interested in. Despite living in Liverpool for only the first-two years of her life, Jill was a proud Scouser and always loved returning to the city. It was a city that gave her temporary refuge when she had to flee a death threat from one of her attackers who had found our address in a suburb of Upminster.

Jill was incensed when Liverpool City Council proposed to cut £60,000 from its grant to the centre. At the same time, it wanted to spend a minimum of £56,900 on returning the Henry Pooley Gates – which incorporated the earliest known example of the Liver Bird – from their then home in the West Midlands to the old sailors home in Liverpool’s Canning Place.

She was not against culture or heritage; but at a time when money was tight, she could not understand how a local authority could prioritise spending £60,000 on some gates over the cost of funding essential support to people who have suffered the most horrendous crime – a crime which leaves long-lasting and deep-seated effects on its victims.

So she stuck her oar in. And, with the ensuing publicity, the funding was restored.

Part of the problem is that responsibility for funding support services for victims of sexual violence keeps changing. At present, the legal responsibility falls on Police and Crime Commissioners. A few years ago it was the Home Office. At another time it was local authorities.

But even this legal minimum is not enough. The nationwide network of such centres is dependent on other funding streams to keep their work going. And much of the senior management time is spent not on supporting victims, but on bringing in the money.

And that brings me back to the Liverpool support service: the Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre. Once again it is in crisis.

Its director, Jo Wood, tells me that “Jill’s spirit is driving me on at the moment as we struggle hugely to stay afloat.”

The centre lost out on all the recent government grants. Without immediate financial input, its children’s services will be drastically reduced from the end of September when both of its children’s workers will be released. And from March next year, it will be forced to withdraw all its services “as we will no longer be able to sustain a safe professional service.”

Already, it has a waiting list of 28 weeks.

As Jo says: “It’s been dire before, but this time they either pay up or we close – it’s that simple”.

So now I am sticking my oar in!

There has been a surge in the number of people reporting that they have been raped and sexually assaulted. Yet at the same time, the agencies supporting victims are finding their budgets cut.

In the case of Liverpool, they have had a 76 per cent increase in the number of clients in the past two years. Seventy-six per cent. Just pause for a moment and take that in.

But during the same period, their funding has been cut. This year by almost half (48 per cent). Again, just pause for a moment and consider that.

The surge in the number of people coming forward for help is testament to the improved treatment victims receive at the hands of the criminal justice system. The support offered to them to help them through their trauma is part of that. Now, more than ever, we need as a society to be increasing the funding for rape and sexual violence support services, not cutting it.

If Jill was alive, she would be fighting hard for such services. Before her untimely and unexpected death, Jill was actively supporting the project’s bid for funding from the Transformation Fund.

We have lost Jill Saward’s voice. But I still have mine. And while it isn’t as powerful as Jill’s was, or as authoritative, knowledgeable, ineluctable or significant; it is still a voice. And I will use it.

So I appeal to Jane Kennedy, the Police and Crime Commissioner for Merseyside; Joe Anderson, the Executive Mayor for the City of Liverpool; Steve Rotheram, the Metro Mayor for the Liverpool City Region; Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary; Simon Antrobus, chief executive of Children in Need; and others to look again at how they fund support for victims of rape and sexual violence.

The Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre in Merseyside is not alone in facing this predicament. All over the country, professional and caring people, experts in their field, are being distracted from their primary purpose of supporting victims and are instead focusing efforts on fund raising.

It has got to stop. Support for victims of sexual violence is not an option. It is a priority. But the governing powers will only treat it as a priority if we, the people of the country, leave them in no doubt that we will hold them accountable for their lack of support.

Please join me in raising your voice by writing to your MP, wherever you live, and asking them what steps they are taking to ensure that support services for victims of rape and sexual violence in their area – and across the country – is fully funded.

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