UK Rape Survivors Demand Justice

Jelena Kulidzan London, Bristol

Women had to fight hard to reform the way the state handles sexual violence in the UK, but the results include specially trained police, prosecutors and judges, plus a rise in the number of reported rapes.

Examination room

SARCs, like the Bridge in Bristol, provide specialist forensic examinations for rape survivors in clean and supportive environments
(Photo: Jelena Kulidzan)

Since I found out that the UK is one of the leading countries in the fight against sexual violence, I started asking myself – how did they do it? What prompted the reforms? And who started first?

I got answers to some of these questions during my recent visit to the UK.

First, I visited The Bridge - Sexual Assault Referral Centre in Bristol (SARCs).  It is one of 33 SARCs in operation in England and Wales. These are specialist units that provide rape survivors with physical and psychological help regardless of whether they wish to report the assault to the police or not.

“If you reach SARC, you will get everything you need – from a forensic medical examination, to clean clothes, toothbrushes, food, counselling – it is all in one place,” says Debbie Hewlett, manager of the Bridge, as she explains the centre’s mission.

The first SARC was opened in 1997 in the Manchester. This was a direct reaction of widespread public anger and debate over the way rape survivors were treated by the system. Women demanded better conditions.

Liz Kelly, professor of sexualised violence at London Metropolitan University, remembers how everything started.

“In the 70s there were strong stereotypes. The only person who was believed if she reported being raped was somebody who was raped by a stranger. There were very few facilities for forensic examinations, there were no support services, so in 1970 women started to organise Rape Crisis Centres, where woman can just go or phone and talk with another woman. And that began to change things. Now, we have one of the highest numbers of reported rapes in terms of Europe,” she says.

You can read more in this report: Different systems, similar outcomes? Tracking attrition in reported rape cases across Europe
(Jo Lovett & Liz Kelly 2009, page 18)

Debbie Hewlett from the Bridge agrees with her: “After feminism… a lot of things have changed for women nowadays, but I think the main reason is that women who were attacked started raising there voices, saying ‘we do not want to be treated like this… we do not want to go to police where they say to us that we are not telling the truth, we do want to get a medical examination in some back, dark room of dirty hospital. We want to go to hospital where they are going to take care of us’.”

After that, the state started to train police officers, prosecutors and judges to properly handle rape cases. The main goal was to teach them how to treat rape survivors with dignity.

“The best improvement is that they have dedicated police departments which deal with sexual violence. So officers are specify trained to understand what sexual violence survivor means, what their emotional state is, so they are now able to talk with them in a much more human way,” says Yvonne Traynor, the chief executive of Rape Crisis Centre in South London.

Yet, while all three agree there has been much progress in the past couple of decades, all are absolutely clear that there is still much more work to do.

For starters, all three say there should be a SARC in every region, the conviction rate for rapists is too low and that the public must be educated to understand that it is not a woman’s fault if she is raped.

Jelena Kulidzan is a Podgorica-based journalist who is participating in the 2011 Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence.

She will be writing regular updates on her investigation into how rape cases are prosecuted in Montenegro, the Balkans and European Union member states.

Fellow Bio


Jelena Kulidžan

Jelena Kulidžan works for Vijesti, a private TV broadcaster in Montenegro. Her main tasks including daily reporting but she also works as the co-editor and presenter of Prime Time News. 


Topic 2011: Justice

The topic for this year’s programme is justice and fellows are investigating subjects as diverse as privatisation, organised crime, employment law, rape convictions and extradition treaties.


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UK Rape Survivors Demand Justice

Jelena Kulidzan