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More referrals than ever to Devon rape support centre

Tuesday, March 30th, 2021 5:29pm

By Ed Oldfield, local democracy reporter

Boss concerned about schools' "rape culture"

The chief executive of a Devon service for sex crime survivors has spoken of her concerns about “rape culture” in schools.

Caroline Voaden, who heads Exeter-based Devon Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Services, was commenting on the 'Everyone’s Invited' website where pupils have made allegations of rape, sexual abuse and misogyny.

A statement from the organisation said the website testimonies revealed the “prevalence of a rape culture in UK schools” and provided “shocking proof that our children are growing up in a misogynistic culture where young men believe they can get away with rape.”

The chief executive called for schools to tackle the problem by having staff trained to support victims and to take action against perpetrators. She said there was a need for  better education for boys on respect for women, consent, and how to be an active bystander.

More than 8,000 allegations of sexual violence and abuse have been made on the Everyone’s Invited website, set up last year for people to post anonymously. The police and government have said a national helpline will be set up and criminal allegations will be investigated.

Ms Voaden said: “Our girls are growing up in an environment where boys and men can be pretty confident they will get away with sexual violence. 

“As adults, it is our responsibility to end this misogynistic behaviour which starts with what may seem to be harmless sexual harassment or ‘banter’, but can ultimately lead to sexual violence and rape.”

The statement said a recent UN Women report revealed that 97 per cent of young women in the UK say they have been sexually harassed.

Rape Crisis England and Wales reports one in five UK women will experience some kind of sexual assault. Only around 15 per cent of victims report to the police and of the reported cases, only 5.7 per cent of cases end with a conviction.

Ms Voaden said: “Here in Devon we support around 120 people a week – the vast majority of them women – who have been raped, assaulted or sexually abused as a child. 

“We saw more referrals in March 2021 than ever before.  The coverage of 'Everyone’s Invited', coming so soon after the intense media coverage of Sarah Everard’s murder, is only going to lead to more trauma for girls and women, and more referrals to services like ours.

“There is no easy answer, but the truth is that few parents are fully aware of what is really going on and few schools are equipped to handle it. If we are educating our children to grow up into fully-formed adults who can have successful relationships with friends, partners and colleagues, then we absolutely have to include this in every classroom in the country.

“There should be staff in every school who are trained in how to handle disclosure of sexual assault or rape; trained in the effects of trauma; trained in the reality of what happens in the brain when someone is violated and why ‘freeze’ is a far more common and explainable reaction than fight or flight. 

“We need an end to victim blaming and responsibility laid correctly and squarely on the shoulders of the perpetrators. Girls need to know there is someone they can talk to – telling parents can be very difficult. 

“Schools need to educate boys in respect for women, what consent really means and how to be an active bystander.  And they need to be ready to deal with alleged perpetrators.

“Every time I attend a regional meeting about violence against women and girls I ask why the educators are not in the room. They should be, and we are ready to help them learn how to support victims and educate our young men.”

Ms Voaden said social media, mobile phones and access to pornography combined to create a toxic mixture which distorted boys’ views of women and sexuality.

The allegations on 'Everyone’s Invited' initially focused on private schools in London, but have widened to include state schools.

The website founder Soma Sara told BBC News: “Rape culture is a universal problem – it’s everywhere, in all schools, all universities and all of society.” 

Domestic violence support organisations reported a rise in cases during the pandemic lockdowns. Figures for sexual offences in Devon and Cornwall in the 12 months to September 2020 fell by six per cent compared to the previous year, in line with the national trend.

Ms Voaden said that was likely due to the lack of social activity during lockdowns, but rape and sexual abuse services are expecting to see a big rise in cases as the lockdown eases.

The disappearance and death of London marketing executive Sarah in early March led to protests and public debate about violence against women and girls. A police officer has been charged with her kidnap and murder.

 

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