Hundreds at Belfast rally to show solidarity with sexual assault victims
Attendees claim judicial system in North retraumatises victims and is not fit for purpose
Hundreds of people attended a rally in Belfast on Thursday to support the woman at the centre of the Belfast rape trial. Photograph: Pacemaker
Hundreds of people gathered outside Laganside Courts in Belfast on Thursday for a rally to express solidarity with all victims of sexual crime.
The demonstration on Thursday afternoon came after the high-profile Crown Court trial of Ireland and Ulster rugby players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding concluded on Wednesday with both men being found not guilty of raping a then 19-year-old woman in 2016.
Among the messages shared by Reclaim the Night, Alliance for Choice and Belfast Feminist Network activists, was the need for reform of the criminal justice system.
Activists said they believed the current system was not fit for purpose, that it retraumatises victims and was “designed to defend the rights of the accused with little regard for the victim”.
A number of those in attendance would not speak to journalists covering the event because “media reporting of rape trials is intrusive, salacious and biased toward undermining the victim’s testimony” and also feel rape trials should not be reported on until after the jury has given its verdict.
Another concern was the length of time the complainant in the case involving the rugby players was in the witness box, for eight days.
A Women’s Aid spokeswoman said the charity had received calls from women who told them they will not engage with the police and courts “because of what they have seen the woman be put through during the course of the trial”.
The PSNI said there had been a spike in the number of reports of rape over the two months of the trail when compared to the same period last year.
A PSNI spokeswoman said there have been 20 additional referrals of rape and sexual assault in January and February (when the trial was on) compared to the same period in 2017.
In the 12 months to February, 3,416 sexual offences were recorded by police, including 968 rapes.
According to the Public Prosecution Service during 2017, of the 430 decisions made in respect of rape, a decision to prosecute was made in 11.2 pre cent of cases.
In 2017 it said the conviction rate for rape cases was 16.4 per cent and the conviction rate for all sexual offences was 51.7 per cent.
People attending the rally chanted: “We believe her” and held placards aloft emblazoned with message including: “I believe her”, “ Me Too”, “Silence is not consent” and “Stand up for the Ulster woman”.
Law and politics student Saoirse O’Neill (20) held a poster carrying the words ‘We fight for a world free from sexism, misogyny and class division’.
She said she believed the burden of proof was too high in sexual crime cases.
“The legal system continues to fail women,” she said.
Physics student Aine Black (21) said she and every woman she knew had experienced “some sort of sexual harassment” in their lives and was pleased that consent to sexual activity was becoming part of public discourse.
“We are finally talking about consent,” she said.
Events manager Hillary Copeland (32) said the court system in the North needed to be reformed.
Green Party MLA Clare Bailey delivered a powerful speech to the assembled crowd highlighting the ways in which she said women in the North had been failed by a patriarchal, misogynist society.
“Rape, sexual violence and domestic violence, all gender-based violence is not about sex, it is not about drugs, not about drink, not about what you wear, it is about power and control,” she said.
She said one in four people should expect to be abused at some point in their lives, saying this was “a damning indictment of any society that allows that expectation to go unchallenged”.
Ms Bailey called for a better judicial process and an agreed curriculum for relationships and sexual education in schools.
“We need to do all in our power to keep women safe and to understand the risks, to know that the justice system is not broken it was built this way.
“This is nothing to do with class, this is everything to do with gender.
“Misogyny is alive and well in Northern Ireland. It is time for change.”