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Speaking Truth To Power - The Survivor Reference Group

A blog to mark the publication of the Survivor Reference Group Initial Report.

Last week we sat in a room in Glasgow and as sunshine poured in through the windows survivors delved into the details of where the justice system in Scotland had let them down. These conversations aren’t unusual for us at Rape Crisis Scotland – justice is one of our key priority areas – but what made this conversation out of the ordinary was that looking on and listening in were Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf and the Lord Advocate James Wolffe QC.

It was a meeting of power, though of very different kinds. Where the Justice Secretary and Lord Advocate have both a great deal of responsibility for justice in Scotland and power in terms of how this is – and is not – delivered, survivors were there to speak truth to it. In doing so with strength, courage and vulnerability, each of them showed the power of stories and of speaking out to effect change.

It can never be right that the process of seeking justice following sexual violence in Scotland is described by some as worse than the assault itself. We know that it is never going to be easy, but we also know it doesn’t have to be this hard.

When survivors enter the justice system many do so knowing that the chance of a conviction is small, and that the struggle will be uphill. What follows too often are unnecessary and bureaucratic delays, erratic and inappropriate communication, victim-blaming attitudes and sometimes outright disbelief from officials that seemingly ‘good guys’ could be responsible for rape. More deeply embedded in the system are stringent evidence requirements around corroboration, challenges with deeply held societal and therefore jury attitudes around rape, and a third verdict unique to Scotland of not proven that muddies the waters even further. Amongst the minority of those who do successfully secure a conviction, the impact of the process – just like the assault – leaves a mark that time doesn’t always heal.

The likelihood is that the change the Survivor Reference Group hopes to achieve together won’t directly benefit those fighting for it. We are fighting for change for those survivors to come. Our Initial Report published today provides recommendations because we want to build a justice system that is fair, one that treats victim-survivors of sexual crimes with basic compassion and dignity.

As survivors spoke out on Wednesday their words and stories were heard by one another – a powerful reminder that though experiencing sexual violence can feel like the “loneliest club in existence” no survivor is ever alone. They were also heard by those with the power to effect change, who in turn had the opportunity to reflect. It was amongst those reflections that Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf apologised to those survivors present and said four simple – yet incredibly important – words:

“You have been failed.”

Last week isn’t the first time a Politician has sat through the stories of those impacted by the policy and legislation they influence in Holyrood or Westminster. It won’t be the last. But for many in that room it was a first of sorts, because in that apology there was acknowledgement that what they had experienced – both in their assault(s) and the justice response was not okay.

“I know it’s not his fault what happened to me, nor how poorly I was treated. But that was the first apology I have had from anyone of power regarding my assault. It made me so emotional, but in a good way and lifted such a weight off my shoulders. For the first time I felt listened to and I felt believed by someone of power.” - Survivor

Power is everywhere, and it is at the very core of sexual violence. Rape is an abuse of power. Sexual abuse is a criminal means of exerting control.

There is power in an apology and the most powerful thing of all would be for those with the means who have heard these stories to use them for good, to transform our justice system.

Our organisation, and the Survivor Reference Group, are here to hold power to account, and that is exactly what we intend to do.

To read the newly published Survivor Reference Group Initial Report click here.

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