Why rapists always walk free in violation of justice
Do you know what the aftermath of rape looks like? Do you know what this most humiliating of crimes, this terrible violation, can do to a young life?
Yesterday, I saw the painful reality for myself. I sat opposite a young woman in a Belfast coffee shop and heard her describe, together with her mother, the devastating impact that rape has had on every aspect of her daily existence. I'll call her Laura to protect her identity.
When she was 18, Laura was raped by an acquaintance in a public park. Her mother remembers how she came home, threw all her clothes into the washing machine and rushed to hide away in her room.
It wasn't until several days had passed that Laura felt able to admit what had happened to her. Together, they went straight to the police and reported the crime, identifying the attacker by name.
There was an unreal, nightmarish quality to the days following the rape. But certain memories stand out sharply.
Laura's mum recalls how she held her daughter as she vomited, again and again, in a deeply visceral reaction of horror, hurt and shame.
A year-and-a-half after the attack, Laura's life is in disarray. She has dropped out of education, she has no job and she is reliant on medication to help with the panic attacks that erupt out of nowhere and leave her terrified and gasping for air.
Never a drinker before, she has increasingly turned to alcohol to help her cope with the overpowering feelings of sadness and vulnerability.
"You don't know how awful it is to hear your daughter turn round and say to you, 'Mum, I really need a drink'," says her mother, wiping away tears from her own eyes.
Now, here's the really sick part. Her rapist, the man who did this terrible thing to Laura, who wrecked her confidence and her wellbeing and her innocence so casually, has got away with it. He's walking the streets right now, free to rape again.
Why has this man evaded justice? Because, although the police referred the case for prosecution, the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) decided not to take it to court.
They told Laura and her family that there was insufficient evidence to provide a reasonable prospect of conviction: there were no witnesses to what took place, they said, and Laura's case was further weakened by the fact that she went to a supermarket with her attacker after the assault.
Yet PPS prosecutors are not psychologists. It is not up to them to speculate why a woman might stay in the company of a man who has just raped her, though it's easy to see how the trauma of the assault might make a young victim feel powerless and trapped, too scared to run away.
That should be for a jury to determine – not a bunch of powerful, yet anonymous, men in suits.
This is far from the first time that I have come across a case like Laura's, where the PPS has set the burden of proof so high that it appears almost impossible for a rape case to come to court.
If it's a situation of one person's word against another (Laura's attacker claimed the sex was consensual), or if there's an absence of forensic, or witness, evidence, then it's thank you and goodnight.
Shut the door on your way out there, dear, would you?
There are signs of a distinct pattern emerging here: according to latest figures (from 2011), 440 rape cases were passed to the PPS from the PSNI.
Of these, 218 were recommended for prosecution, only 78 were prosecuted and a small fraction of that number were actually convicted.
This worrying slippage has already been noted: the Northern Ireland Criminal Justice Inspection has recommended that the PPS "should investigate the reasons why the majority of rape cases are directed for no prosecution".
Following the Jimmy Savile revelations, we are seeing cases of alleged celebrity rape and sexual assault being prosecuted 30 or 40 years down the line. But here in 21st century Northern Ireland, it seems that rapists enjoy a great deal more freedom.
When it comes down to your word against his, unless you are in a floor-length skirt, completely sober, on your way back from Sunday school and in the presence of three independent witnesses who can film the attack and report it to the cops within a 10-minute time-frame, then you can forget about justice.
The rapist has already won.