07:27, April 17 259 0 theguardian.com

2018-04-17 07:27:04
Esther McVey displays a shocking lack of empathy for rape victims

On Monday, Esther McVey, the work and pensions secretary, caused controversy by calling the government’s “rape clause” for child tax credits “an opportunity” for rape victims to gain emotional support. She suggested that demanding rape victims disclose details of their attack to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) would offer “double support” – both emotional and financial.

Since its introduction last year, the rape clause has been roundly criticised by MPs, activists and survivor-led organisations. The SNP MP Alison Thewliss called it “one of the most inhumane and barbaric policies ever to emanate from Whitehall”. McVey’s comments this week only heighten the feeling that she and her government colleagues lack empathy for victims and survivors of rape.

So what is the rape clause? In his 2015 budget, George Osborne announced a cut to child tax credits, meaning families would only be able to claim the benefit for their first two children. The rape clause was an exemption: women who have a third child as a result of rape could still receive child tax credits but only under certain circumstances.

First, she must not be living with the man who raped her. This ignores the realities facing women trapped in violent relationships. Many women are frightened to escape an abusive partner, particularly as the most dangerous time for a domestic abuse victim is when she leaves. Forced pregnancy is also a recognised aspect of violent relationships.

And second, in order to get tax credits for a third child, a professional who the woman has spoken to about the rape must complete sections of the claim form.

By claiming that talking to the DWP will “support” women, McVey betrays a real lack of understanding of trauma and sexual violence. The existing rape clause policy forces women to relive the pain and trauma of rape over and over again. There is the process of filling out the form. Then there’s the need to contact a professional who supported them after the rape (that’s if such a professional even exists – many women don’t tell anyone following sexual assault and only 15% of rape victims reported it to the police). And finally there’s the demand a woman speaks to a DWP representative about her experience. Far from offering a space for “support”, requiring women to relive and retell this traumatic incident risks causing a great deal of upset and anxiety.

Rape survivors deserve a certain level of understanding and specialist care. Are the DWP staff trained to deal with this specific trauma? Will specially trained independent sexual violence advisers be recruited into every DWP office? Even if they were, real, positive support can hardly be offered when a woman is under pressure to talk about rape in order to access her benefits.

The government does allow for specified third-party organisations to speak on behalf of the rape victim. But whether the woman takes up this option or not, the problem remains. She is still being expected to disclose her experience of rape to the government, even if she would prefer not to. As a result, some organisations have refused to cooperate, saying the third-party processing of claims “is not compassionate, nor can it ever be made to be so”.

McVey should also consider how her offer of support is coming at a time when services for rape victims are struggling with funding. Around 85,000 women are raped in England and Wales every year, and yet the organisations designed to help women are repeatedly threatened with cuts. In 2015, there was widespread concern that nearly half of all rape crisis centres would close due to lack of funding. With continued austerity, the risk of future closures remains.

If McVey and the government were serious about offering “support” to rape survivors, they would not force women to disclose their violent histories. They would not penalise women who are trapped in abusive relationships. And they would not decimate the safety net that exists to help women. Instead, they would scrap the two-child limit and adequately fund sexual violence support services.

Rape is a brutal violation of a woman’s boundaries. By demanding a woman disclose this devastating experience to the government in order to gain financial assistance, the DWP and McVey are not offering her “double support”. They are instead violating her boundaries once again.

Sian Norris is a writer and feminist activist

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