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It is time to tackle this terrible blight

How many women living in Scotland have been subjected to rape?

It is impossible to know but the number is likely to be in the tens of thousands. According to Sir Stephen House, chief constable of Police Scotland, 905 rapes have been reported in Scotland in the six months since April and the real number is likely to be much higher as only around half of rapes are thought to be reported. Behind those bald statistics is a terrible legacy of trauma, misery and distress affecting individual women, often for many years after an attack.

It is widely accepted that this blight has gone untackled for too long but these figures only underline how much more work there is to be done. The number of reported rapes is up 35% on the same time last year.

Some of the increase is due to a long-term trend of growing confidence among women that rape allegations will be taken seriously and some to a surge in reporting of historic offences following the Jimmy Savile affair. Further cases are coming to light through better investigation of domestic abuse.These latest figures do not necessarily indicate a sudden rise in the incidence of rape, then, but underline the alarming prevalence of sexually abusive behaviour by certain men, which is no comfort at all.

Two questions immediately arise: first, how do we ensure that the law punishes rape; and, secondly, how do we prevent rape in the first place?

The conviction rate for rape in Scotland is woeful, with only 10% of all reported incidents even going to court. Calls for the abolition of corroboration in Scots law (the requirement for two separate sources to support crucial points in a case)have been driven in large part by a desire to increase the number of rape cases that reach the courtroom, though campaigners, police and lawyers are divided on whether the change would make it more likely that juries would convict.

At the same time, allegations of rape are now taken very seriously by the police at all levels. That cannot alter the fact that rape remains a difficult charge to prove but the determination of the police, prosecutors, politicians and other professionals to increase the conviction rate may yet bear fruit.

So what can be done to prevent rape? Police efforts to train door staff to challenge men who may have targeted vulnerable women are an excellent practical intervention. The police alone cannot be expected to prevent rapes, though, since it is a consequence of deep-rooted misogynistic attitudes within certain sections of Scottish society. Schoolchildren are taught about gender equality and respect for others, but sometimes the messages young men get at home and from the wider community undermine that lesson. A Government survey in 2007 found that, while a clear majority of Scots believed women were never responsible for being raped, one-third believed women were partly to blame if they flirted, drank or dressed revealingly.

Public education campaigns aimed at men, responsible behaviour by adults in front of children and a justice system that is seen to catch and convict rapists can all play a part in changing these pernicious attitudes, but there is much, much more work to be done.

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