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RAPE is a very serious crime of assault and obviously needs to be treated as such, both in criminal investigations and in sentencing once the rapist has been convicted.

There was a time when rape sentences were exceptionally light and during the 1980s there was a great deal of discussion and some determined campaigning, in which this newspaper played its part and the “standard” sentence for rape moved from under two years to something much closer to a decade behind bars.

The then Chief Justice, Mr Justice Telford Georges was particularly eloquent in expressing his surprise and horror, at the low sentences for rape that tended to prevail in Africa at that time compared to his native West Indies. This was largely due, in his opinion, to a totally incorrect view by many men that all women required a bit of coercion and a rapist was simply overdoing it. Under his guidance and the input of other judges and senior magistrates, the attitude did change so that a refusal to consent was to be taken at full value, with no ifs and no maybes.

The aent of women in the upper levels of magistracy and their appointment as judges of the High Court, again a post independence move, also ensured that the Judiciary was going to be far more sensitive of just how serious this crime was. Generally speaking rape is now sentenced as a very serious crime of assault, right up there with attempted murder.

Over the past three decades there has also been a cocktail of investigative and legal reforms. Most police stations now have at least one officer, usually a woman officer, trained to handle the initial complaint and obtain the required evidence without further degrading the victim.

Special court procedures have been put in place that allow the victim to give evidence, a traumatic experience for many, with the least possible extra trauma, but still giving the accused the right to have his accuser questioned.

Generally this has worked.

Now there are proposals that Parliament should legislate for a mandatory 30-year-term with a life sentence for those who rape children under 12.

We see two problems with this: the removal of discretion from the judiciary and attacking the problem from the wrong angle.

We believe that since rape trials have to be handled by at least a regional magistrate, that is a judicial officer who has a great deal of experience and proven competence, removing discretion in sentencing is not the best way forward. Circumstances vary and judicial officers are trained to take these into account. If present sentences are considered inconsistent, or are considered over lenient, then the judiciary itself needs to be approached and allowed to debate the matter, as it did in the 1980s. A few test cases going as far as the Supreme Court over sentencing would establish new precedents.

But in our opinion the real problem is still a reluctance by too many victims of rape to make the necessary formal reports to the police. This is getting better. A surge in recent decades in reports of child rape suggests not so much an increase in this sort of crime, but a far greater willingness for concerned families to make the reports.

And the new post-independence generations of women are far more willing to stand up for their rights and are more willing to take a public stand. However, research suggests that most rapists are known to their victims and this, in most countries, makes some victims reluctant to report the assault. That needs to change. We have a long way to go. Many rapes are still not reported, or are reported long after the assault when evidence is difficult to obtain. Rape can be a difficult crime to prove sometimes it comes down to just one person’s word against another’s and this can see the rapist escaping with the benefit of the doubt that justice demands.

But an immediate report with the immediate gathering of corroborating evidence, makes it easier to prove rape. And as a useful side effect, the gathering of immediate evidence and the start of a healing process for the victim makes it far less likely that the victim will fall pregnant, be infected with disease or suffer lasting psychological damage.

Very high sentences will not deter if 90 percent of rapes are never reported. But if all rapes are reported promptly, investigated thoroughly and the attackers arrested and tried and, thanks to good evidence, convicted, then even the present sentences would almost certainly deter, especially if the judiciary itself looked at its sentencing policies and precedents and adjusted these in the light of modern attitudes and public perceptions.

We understand the concern that rape is far too common. But we still see the effective solution to be the hard slog of changing public perceptions, ensuring that victims find it easy to report this very serious crime, and ensuring that investigations are done exceptionally well.

Source : The Herald