20 years of the Human Rights Act – a view from Jewish Women’s Aid

5 Nov, 2018 | Protecting Human Rights in the UK, Women's Rights

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By Lee Wax, Communications & Training Manager at Jewish Women’s Aid

This past year marks the 20th anniversary of the UK Human Rights Act. It has also seen unprecedented change in the social climate and discourse around violence against women. We’ve witnessed the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, the disclosures of previously covered-up sexual harassment in many different industries, public discussion about online misogynist trolling, debate about victim-blaming, and the rise in understanding of sexual consent.

One landmark moment this year in the UK was at the Supreme Court, when two female victims of rape successfully challenged the political establishment, under the Human Rights Act, holding the Police and Home Office to account. This was the case of the victims who claimed that the serious crimes of rapist John Worboys were not properly investigated, going against Article 3 of the Human Rights Act. The women won their case with the support of human rights lawyer Harriet Wistrich, Director of the Centre for Women’s Justice, and four women’s groups including Rape Crisis and EVAW (End Violence Against Women).

This landmark ruling showed two fundamental things: firstly, that violence against women and girls should be seen definitively as a serious crime and must be investigated as such, and secondly, that the victims of violence against women and girls can invoke the Human Rights Act to hold the establishment to account for not protecting them.

Both of these things might be self-evident to right-minded people. They are in theory. But as we at Jewish Women’s Aid know, when women seek justice after domestic or sexual violence, it is a very different story in practice. Our institutions are not yet reliably safe institutions for women to report, get help, or get justice, for enough of the time. Most cases don’t get to court, and when they do the odds of successful prosecution are still stacked against them. Maybe it is a problem of resources, maybe awareness, and sometimes there’s even a lack of will. Whether we are talking about the entertainment industry, higher education, the Police, the NHS, the corporate world, service industry, the judicial system, even religious institutions – institutional bias against believing victims is still the norm, and victim-blaming is still rife.

We also need to recognise the scale of the problem. Domestic abuse affects one in four women in her lifetime, and one in five women experiences sexual violence. Sexual harassment, the most common form of violence against women, affects the lives of nearly every woman in the UK, with most women experiencing harassment at some point, even from childhood – as evidenced in a recent government report.[1]

In what has been called a “collapse in rape justice”,[2] recent Crown Prosecution Service statistics show that rape prosecutions were actually plummeting, with 23% fewer defendants charged in 2017-18 than the previous year.[3] This has been the lowest number in a decade, despite an increased need for support services from Rape Crisis and other sexual assault agencies. This was partly due to prosecutors being urged to ditch ‘weak’ rape cases, to improve their figures. Even more worrying, fewer than a third of young men who are prosecuted for rape are now being convicted. Our society has long been an unsympathetic place to report rape,[4] with only around 15% of victims reporting to the police.  With this kind of culture, it is not surprising that rape victims are becoming even more reluctant to report than before.

So despite huge advances in the social climate, the reality on the ground is that our social and judicial institutions have a lot of catching up to do.

To echo the early women’s movement, women’s rights are human rights. When society fails victims of violence against women – whether from lack of resources, lack of awareness or lack of will – it is an infringement of their basic human rights. The Human Rights Act and the precedent set by the Worboys ruling have the potential to be very powerful tools to help our clients get justice. Our clients just need to have access to the legal structures and champions who will help them secure it.




[1] Sexual Harassment of Women & Girls in Public Places, House of Commons Women & Equalities Committee, 23 October 2018

[2] Sarah Green, co-director of the End Violence Against Women coalition

[3] Crown Prosecution Service Report, Violence Against Women and Girls, 26 September 2018

[4] Multiple examples on #whyididntreport

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