Conduct of rape cases indicates contempt for women and their rights to bodily integrity
Value accorded to ‘family’ and ‘society’ trumps that accorded to real individuals
Fiona Doyle with her husband (Left) Jim and son (Right) arriving at the Criminal Courts of Justice. Photograph: Alan Betson /The Irish Times
What is the value placed on female flesh in this country? That was the strange question that swam into my mind as I sat opposite a young rape victim in a Belfast cafe. A year and a half ago, when she was 18, Aine (as I’ll call her) was raped by an acquaintance in a public park. The experience has devastated her. What I saw sitting in front of me was a young woman cast adrift in a cruel world; her confidence, innocence and wellbeing wrecked in a single moment of casual depravity.
Aine has dropped out of education, she has no job, and she is on medication for panic attacks which erupt out of nowhere and leave her terrified and gasping for air. At the age of 19, alcohol has become her prop and her refuge, a way of blotting out the feelings of anxiety, shame and vulnerability that continually threaten to overwhelm her.
Yet while Aine stays at home, following her mother around the house like a lost lamb, her attacker is out on the streets. He is a free man, free to rape again. He was never brought before a court. Why? Because although the PSNI referred the case for prosecution, the North’s Public Prosecution Service (PPS) deemed there was insufficient evidence to provide a reasonable prospect of conviction.
“There were no witnesses to what took place, no one came to [Aine’s] assistance and, therefore, no one is able to confirm her account,” a PPS prosecutor wrote to Aine and her family.
The prosecutor added that Aine’s case was further weakened by the fact she went to a supermarket with her attacker after the rape took place, a fact that defence lawyers would inevitably use to discredit her testimony. The family protested in the strongest possible terms, pointing out that Aine clearly resisted the assault (her attacker claimed the sex was consensual), and that she was in a state of confusion, fear and shock when she went to the shop with him afterwards.
No day in court
They requested a review of the PPS decision, which was carried out, but the same answer came back again. There was to be no case to answer, no day in court. Justice, or at least the prospect of justice, was denied.
And so Aine occupies a kind of twilight hinterland, where the ugly, humiliating truth of what happened continues to eat away at her, poisoning and perverting any attempt to resume a normal life. The initial violation has been compounded by the criminal justice system’s refusal to hear her cry. She has been used and disposed of, apparently of no more importance than a dirty tissue, and it seems no one is listening. Is it surprising that she feels powerless, worthless and invisible?
Of course, not every claim can go to court but, time after time, prosecutors set the burden of proof at such a high level that it becomes virtually impossible for rape victims to have their cases brought before a judge and jury. On the island of Ireland, very many rape cases are directed for no prosecution, and we simply don’t know why.
Let’s not make the mistake of thinking that the small proportion of women who eventually do end up facing their attackers in court are necessarily the lucky ones, however. There have been a series of appallingly bizarre sentences in recent months, most notoriously in the case of Fiona Doyle, who was repeatedly raped by her father for more than a decade, and had to watch him walk free from court because he was doddery and a bit frail, poor old thing. The awful impact of this was later slightly ameliorated by the sheepish volte face of the presiding judge.
And last week, a judge saw fit to let a convicted child rapist off going to jail because it would be tough on his family, and besides, he had – in the judge’s words – “self-rehabilitated” since the offences were committed.
What is the message that wounded women are being sent by these witless, heartless judicial (and pre-judicial) decisions? Quite simply, they are being told that they do not matter, that the fundamental integrity of their bodies – and their right to remain intact and inviolate – is of secondary significance to other, more pressing, concerns.
It is considered more important that a rapist be allowed to remain free, to care for his autistic children, than that a victim see her attacker sent to prison. The nebulous needs of those mythical entities, “the family” and “society”, consistently trump those of the individual woman.
We hear a similar roar of contempt for women and their bodies from the militant anti-abortion lobby, albeit expressed in a loopier way.
Behind the torrent of plastic foetuses, scapulars,medals and blood-soaked letters containing accusations of the mass murder which has recently been directed at the Taoiseach and his colleagues, there is the same callous dismissal of women’s right to self-determination. And the value of female flesh? By these standards, it’s of negligible and declining worth.