3481282964_fa97169694_b.jpg [A photograph of a bright pink, hand-written placard against a brick background, which says “I hate rape”. There is a marker pen in the background.]

The Guardian has published an interview with Kier Starmer, the director of public prosecutions, about restoring rape victims’ confidence in the criminal justice system.

Rape Crisis reports that

Only 15% of serious sexual offences against people 16 and over are reported to the police and of the rape offences that are reported, fewer than 6% result in an offender being convicted of this offence.

The lousy conviction rate is a key reason that many women do not report being raped. It can feel like a waste of time to even report, when the likelihood is that it will go nowhere?

In recent years, new concerns have emerged among women who are raped, as we hear of more and more being imprisoned themselves when their rape allegations were not proved in court, and perhaps most high profile, a woman who was imprisoned for retracting true allegations. With regard to this specifically, Starmer has now requested that all perverting the course of justice cases that involve retracted rape and domestic violence allegations should be submitted to him for approval.

It seems he is taking action, and I am very glad of that, as it is sorely needed. And Starmer insists that the 25% funding cut to the CPS will not affect sexual or domestic violence services.

One group of women that has been overlooked in these efforts to improve reporting of rape, is disabled women. Around 10 years ago I spoke to a specialist sexual assault police officer about having been raped. It did not go well, and we both decided that I should not proceed with making a formal report. This was initially because I was unable to tell her the details of what had happened. From my point of view, she was a stranger, a quite intimidating one at that, and I had never told anyone the intimate details of what had occurred (and in fact, I still haven’t). From her point of view, if I couldn’t tell her, then I would never be able to stand up in court and tell a roomful of strangers. I agree. The other reason, however, was that she found out I had mental health diagnoses. She said that this would make me an ‘unreliable witness’ in the eyes of the court, and my word would not be believed. There was no acknowledgement of cause and effect – that in fact sexual violence may have caused my distress. Many women experience mental distress after rape. If that automatically means we are not ‘reliable witnesses’, then it needs looking at urgently.

And it is not just women with psychiatric diagnoses who have difficulty reporting rape, or being taken seriously in the judicial system. Women with learning disabilities face similar prejudice, and may have difficulty communicating that any abuse has taken place at all. Disabled women can have more difficulty leaving an abusive relationship, particularly if they rely on the abusive partner to assist them with communication or mobility, and very few refuges are fully accessible even if they can leave.

In terms of domestic abuse, as well as physical, sexual and emotional abuse, there is an extra layer of abuse which can happen to disabled women. Their partner can withhold medication, over-medicate, refuse to assist the woman at all, or refuse dignified assistance options, if the partner is also the woman’s carer. They can withhold communication aids, and limit mobility and outside contact considerably.

And it is not just that disabled women are less likely to be taken seriously, and less likely to have access to support and judicial services, we are also much more vulnerable to abuse.

As many as 83% of women who have been disabled since childhood have been the victims of sexual assault, 49% of whom experience 10 or more incidents. 40% of physically disabled women in one study reported have been sexually assaulted, and for individuals with psychiatric disabilities, the rate of violent criminal victimization including sexual assault was 2 times greater than in the general population. 45% of female psychiatric outpatients report being sexually abused during childhood, and horrifyingly, lifetime risk for violent victimization was ‘so high for homeless women with severe mental illness (97%) as to amount to normative experiences for this population’. (Statistics all from Wisconsin Coalition against Sexual Assault – the sheer dearth of figures available about sexual assault and disabled women other than these from WCASA, is very telling in itself).

If these efforts to encourage women to come forward, and efforts to support women following sexual assault, do not start addressing the specific issues faced by disabled women, then they are doing all women a disservice. If there is a space in a refuge, but the steps into the building prevent a disabled woman from taking that place, then we are letting women down. If nobody checks with the woman who is unable to speak, whether her assistants are taking care of her with respect and not hurting her, we are letting women down. And if somebody doesn’t believe the ‘unreliable’ learning disabled or mentally ill woman who talks about abuse, then we are letting women down. If disabled women do not have the same access to justice as non-disabled women, then women do not have access to justice.

(Photo by Steve Rhodes. Article cross-posted at incurable hippie blog).

Comments From You

Laura // Posted 19 April 2011 at 9:42 pm

Great piece, Pippa :-)

Philippa Willitts // Posted 19 April 2011 at 9:42 pm

Thanks Laura.

esme // Posted 19 April 2011 at 9:45 pm

I have suffered from severe and enduring mental illness since my teens. When I was raped I was too frightened to go to the police, so I tried to tell my psychiatrist. I couldn’t tell him every detail of what had happened to me, due to confusion and distress. He told me I must be lying to get attention and tried to insist I needed to be hospitalised. I never did report it.

Philippa Willitts // Posted 19 April 2011 at 9:46 pm

I’m so sorry this happened to you Esme. Sadly it is not at all rare in the psychiatric system for us to be treated like that. It’s no surprise we don’t report.

sianushka // Posted 20 April 2011 at 12:22 pm

thank you for writing this and bringing attention to this important issue. I had no idea the stats were so high. Brilliant post.

Keren // Posted 21 April 2011 at 3:21 pm

Thank-you so much for this article. This is EXACTLY what happened to me. I live in Australia, and it’s no different here. There’s a great site called Women With Disabilities Australia that talks about this issue.

Philippa Willitts // Posted 21 April 2011 at 4:59 pm

Thanks for your comment, Keren, I’m so sorry this has happened to you too. I will definitely check out that site thanks.

Magda Anne // Posted 22 April 2011 at 9:41 am

Excellent piece! I know what you mean when you say that our testimony is often considered unreliable on the basis of nothing more than disability. A while back I wrote on how disablism & rape culture intersect (http://wp.me/p1rIuc-1b), and this is just what I was trying to say!

The quick throw in (formally DE) // Posted 22 April 2011 at 3:44 pm


There is no mention in your article about the use of intermediaries in criminal cases to assist witnesses. Which is a tad surprising – it would have been a completely different article.

follow this link – http://www.justice.gov.uk/publications/research120607a.htm

Philippa Willitts // Posted 22 April 2011 at 4:02 pm

I disagree that it would have been a completely different article had I mentioned intermediaries. Had I mentioned them, it would have been to say that I was not offered one, and I don’t know a single woman who has been.

Intermediaries also only seem to apply when a case gets to trial. This does not help with being taken seriously when reporting to the police, or by anyone else in fact. It does not stop prejudice being applied before the court stage.

It also does not change lack of physical access to many support and legal services. Nor the problems some disabled women have in making a complaint in the first place, or being trapped in an abusive relationship.

The law and society have to go much, much further if we are to say that disabled women have equal access to it.

The quick throw in // Posted 22 April 2011 at 4:18 pm


They were not available 10 years ago. They seemed to have been piloted in 2004/5.

You wrong about them being used only at trial. Search on Google and you’ll find a document endeavouring to explain what intermediaries are and what they do. Here is the answer to the question “Are they only used in Court” –

“No. The intermediary can also carry out duties at the pre-trial stage, for example by facilitating communication during a police interview. They may also help out in pre-trial preparation such as a court familiarisation visit by the witness.”

Philippa Willitts // Posted 22 April 2011 at 4:20 pm

Ok. Because they were from the 1999 law I assumed they were. But, I still know no other women who have been offered one either.

The quick throw in // Posted 22 April 2011 at 4:37 pm

@ Philippa

One problem appears to be that there aren’t that many of them.

I see that City University (there may be others) offers a training course.

Donna // Posted 29 July 2011 at 1:18 am

I have a handicapped daughter that had been raped back in 2005 on her birthday. She was afraid to tell me, because he scared her a lot. He was an older man and she was in her early 20’s. I found out when she got pregnant. I called the police, and they just said that it is his word against hers and wait until the baby is born. Well we did, and proved it was his, after he repeatedly responded that he never touched her. The police Social Services built a case, and went after him. HE got himself a fancy lawyer and went in to talk to the D.A. The lawyer said that he was borderline mentally retarded with an IQ in the 70’s and not responsible for his actions upon her. That he did not understand right from wrong, and did not know that he had done anything wrong to her. She on the other hand is mentally challenged, with an IQ in the 40’s, deaf in one ear and a moderate hearing loss in the other. The D.A. just told him to go home that they were not going to prosecute him. Then told my daughter to get on with her life and live with it. Six years later she still cries, and hurts from the way they treated her. She asks a”Why?” Why can he do that to me and get away with it. He drives a nice car, worked as a certified Welder for about 35 years, rebuilt his home, raised a family….and they are saying he does not know right from wrong??? How is he not responsible? Now he went for his Parental rights, and lies to everyone on how he became the father. One lie to one person, and another lie to someone else. Then they jump in our faces and say that we are lying, and why are we telling stories about him that are not true. He treats my daughter terrible, so rude, and dirty looks. If we go for visitation, they want us to stay in the car, so no one sees us, and they want to take her from the car. He says he does not even want to see or look at my daughter in any way, and hate us so. He smiles and says “They said that I did nothing wrong” with a smirk on his face. How long does she have to take this. She has no human rights, no one cares. She is a laughing stock, and the Joke of his family. She has feelings too, and it hurts so much. And hurts me to see her cry and get upset over the situation that has surrounded her life. Where do we go from here? I cannot afford a fancy lawyer, I cannot afford any lawyer. He is getting a new one, and is going for the baby now. No longer a baby, going on 6 pretty soon. We are scared, and she has been put through all of this because the DA did not care, nor want to waste his time on some handicapped young lady. Where do we go from here. Does anyone care? What options are there for her? Just give up, shut up and die. We are not even allowed to tell anyone what he did, or call him what he is “A rapist” and he had his lawyer draw up papers saying that we cannot call him a rapist or any other names to do with what he did to her. We had no lawyer, and they told us that this is the way it is. Where are our rights? Where is our freedom of speech? Where are her rights to the truth, and to be able to tell the truth? How can they do this? What kind of laws do we have that they can treat anyone this way? We are so lost, and my daughter is so confused and broken hearted that life has dealt her a horrible hand like this, and saying “Sorry” this is your life, deal with it!

Philippa Willitts // Posted 29 July 2011 at 9:07 am

Donna, what a terrible situation you and your daughter are in, I’m so sorry. Are there any local disability rights organisations who could help you?

But I’m glad your daughter has you! You clearly believe in her passionately, and stick up for her rights, and seek justice for her, and that will help her a lot, to know she is believed and somebody cares about her and what happened to her.

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