Rape is a vile crime, regarded by most people as the most serious assault on the person after murder. The emotional effects of the violation can remain with the victims for the rest of their lives.
And it is a crime which the perpetrators all too often get away with, either because the victims of the assault do not report it or because the courts are unable to verify the facts of the case to the judicial standard required.
There is a perception among the public that the incidence of rape in Northern Ireland is increasing, although police say the trend is actually downwards. This year, since April, there have been 192 rapes and attempted assaults reported.
However, the really staggering figure is that, according to the police, 70-80% of sexual attacks on women are not reported. There is no other type of serious crime which is so massively hidden.
It is understandable why some women do not report rapes. They may fear interrogation by the police. They may be too embarrassed to undergo
medical examinations. They may not wish to get involved in the legal process.
They may not want relatives or parents or partners to find out that they were assaulted. They may even fear the rapist, because most rapes are committed by men known to the victim. Only 8% of rapes are by total strangers, although that is the stereotypical view of the offence in the public mind.
By not reporting rapes, women are doing themselves and other women a disservice. The rapist may well offend again, putting other women in danger.
Police treatment of victims is now much more car
ing and responsive than happened on occasions in the past.
There are special investigation suites and women officers are closely involved at all stages.
If a prosecution is ultimately brought, the victim is guaranteed anonymity. There was a time when the victims felt it was their morality, not their attacker, that was on trial, but even the courts are now more sympathetic to the victims, within the constraints that justice must be fair to all parties.
One of the biggest problems surrounding the crime is the generally low detection rate.
This year the PSNI has cleared around one-fifth of rapes reported to police. Last year the figure was just below 17%. That is a low figure and even with modern detection techniques is can be difficult to secure a conviction. However, it must be stressed that science has improved to the stage where, for example, the rape and killing of an elderly woman in Belfast 20 years ago was solved recently thanks to a DNA sample taken from the clothing of the victim.
There are simple safeguards that women can take to protect themselves on a night out, such as staying with friends, taking a recognised taxi home, limiting alcohol intake and trying to avoid situations where they could be vulnerable. Yet, since the majority of rapes are carried out by men known to the victims, even those precautions cannot guarantee safety. If women are attacked they should report the incident immediately to increase the chances of the rapist being caught and prosecuted. A greater police presence on the streets, particularly in urban areas, would also be a reassurance to women.