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24 November 2011

Let’s talk about sexism…

There was widespread shock this week as news of three reported rapes in 24 hours, in different locations across Northern Ireland, prompted the police to reveal that they are investigating more than 10 cases a week. The number of reported rapes represents just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the actual levels of sexual assault in our province and this, once again, raises questions over the low reporting and conviction rates here. 

Campaigners for women's rights were outraged at results of an Amnesty International survey which, in 2008, revealed that nearly half of University of Ulster students believe that a woman is partially or totally responsible for being raped if she has `behaved in a flirtatious manner'. One in 10 students also thought it acceptable for a man to hit his girlfriend if she was to nag, flirt with another man or refuse to have sex. The seriousness of these findings prompted an early day motion in Westminster urging "the government to support work by student unions, police, universities and specialist services working with the victims of sexual violence to challenge these disturbing attitudes and break the cycle of sexual violence against women".

In light of the report, a prominent feminist academic and freelance journalist suggested that Northern Ireland was a 'rapist's paradise' - low levels of reporting and conviction fuelled by the sexist attitudes she believed to be rife, not only in our universities, but police force and government as well. It has taken five years to realise a joint project between the Department for Health and the Police Service to build a Sexual Assault Referral Centre in Northern Ireland (it is still under construction). This delay and an alarming lack of funding for voluntary sector rape and abuse crisis care services re-enforces a sense that this is an issue low on the political and social priority list.

What appeared to be missing from the debate then, as it is now, was the voice of the churches. This is not to say that there aren't churches doing great work caring for those affected by sexual violence - far from it. However, few are publicly speaking out, joining with campaigners and politicians to condemn and challenge underlying attitudes which justify or downplay such abuse. Few are influencing the powers and structures which help perpetuate them. So what is holding us back?

Unfortunately, judgmentalism and prudishness in our churches has often prevented us from speaking out. There is also the fear that getting involved will mean highlighting our views on abortion and certain lifestyle choices, or worse still - that we end up compromising on these issues. And yet, as Christians we must get involved. No matter what the circumstances, rape and other forms of abuse cause real and often long-term suffering. We should be leading the way in showing compassion to those who are hurting and publicly challenging those who further violate a victim's dignity by blaming them for what has happened.

Pursuing justice requires a change of heart not just a change in the law. Rape and abuse will continue to go unreported and conviction rates will remain scandalously low for as long as we allow such damaging, sexist, attitudes to go uncontested. In addition to putting pressure on our politicians, police and community leaders we should be addressing a lack of awareness, poor attitudes and limited action in our congregations. In turn we can seek out and work with others - all who share common goals - to see attitudes change, better provision of crisis care, higher conviction rates and ultimately safer streets (and homes).