Yesterday, a great woman died. A woman who, depending when you were born, you may not even know the name of. Jill Saward passed away yesterday, after suffering a stroke, aged just 51. Those who knew of Jill Saward in her too-short life treasured and admired her. And those who didn't know of her soon will.
Her story, briefly, is this: when Saward was 21, in March 1986, three men wearing balaclavas broke into her father’s vicarage in Ealing, West London. The men were armed with knives. They beat Saward's boyfriend and her father with a cricket bat. They were left for dead, but survived. Then they repeatedly raped Saward and tied her up with a skipping rope.
The subsequent trial at the Old Bailey created unprecedented media attention. The judge handed down a sentence of 14 years to the gang leader, who did not attack Saward, for burglary. Yet the men who raped Saward? One, Martin McCall, was given five years for rape and five years for burglary (to run concurrently). Christopher Byrne was sentenced to just three years for rape – and five years for burglary and assault. The break-in was, in the eyes of the law that day, more grave a crime than a heinous attack on a woman’s body. Jill Saward's body.
The case set a legal precedent for prosecutors to be able to appeal for longer sentences, and contributed to a change in the law. But it was what Saward did next that came to define her. Despite feeling suicidal at times, she stood up to the law and the media, and waived her right to anonymity – the first ever to do so in this country. Speaking today, Polly Neate, CEO of Women’s Aid, who provide life-saving support to vulnerable women across the country, acknowledged the vast impact of that simple, but courageous, action – and how it still affects her work as a fellow campaigner today. “When she waived her right to anonymity, she gave a face to the issue,” Neate says. “No one had ever done that before. And it was a different time – the whole women’s movement was at a different point in history. Can you imagine what public opinion was like then? It was an incredibly, incredibly brave thing to do.”
She didn’t stop there – or ever, really. Next, she successfully campaigned to remove the now-unthinkable permission the law gave to rape perpetrators to represent themselves and cross-examine their victims in the criminal court. Poignantly, this week her actions were relevant once more as the government faced growing pressure to take action on the same allowances in the private family court, where survivors of domestic violence can still be cross-examined (and, in essence, lawfully intimidated) by their violent ex-partners. “The reason we’ve managed to achieve that is because we can point to the fact that there is a discrepancy between the criminal court and the private court,” Neate adds. “Jill did that. She is still, all these years later, enabling change for women in this country.”
Saward also became a counsellor and a mother of three. She spoke openly and defiantly about her experiences in person and in print, in her book. She personally helped thousands of people and inspired even more – “Jill was the first woman to show that it is possible to make the journey from victim to survivor to campaigner,” Neate says – and she refused to be silenced, especially on issues like anonymity for men accused of rape, a notion she labelled nothing less than insulting. She trained and educated professionals. She set up, alongside her friend Alison Boydell, a campaign – JURIES – to educate jurors about sexual assault and rape, to combat poisonous social bias and aid justice for women. “And Jill was also a deeply caring friend,” Boydell said. “On Facebook this morning, I can’t tell you how many people I have seen describe her as their ‘rock’. The amount of support she gave to individuals was huge.
“And she was passionate about her work. She never tired. I will miss her.”
“When she waived her right to anonymity, she gave a face to the issue...No one had ever done that before. And it was 1986, a whole different time...Can you imagine what public opinion was like then?"
Moreover, she started something integral for those who are subjected to sexual violence: she began to lift the shame imposed on survivors. Saward was the first to say that, when it comes to sexual violence, shame lies solely with the perpetrator, never their victims. By speaking out, she gifted other survivors with something important: the choice to be heard and listened to. Though it’s still there, lingering, the shame and social stigma around sexual violence was so heavy back then that it wasn’t an option to break the silence. And voices are needed – still in the UK one in five women are raped in their lifetimes and one in three are sexually assaulted. The conviction rate for rape is still perilously low and women are still, carelessly and constantly, victim-blamed.
“The reason that Jill came into the public eye is horrific, and I am incredibly sad that she has died, and at such a young age – it is awful to lose someone like her,” Neate says. “But I also think that it is an opportunity to make more women – and younger women – aware of her legacy. A message of hope. I think that’s what she would have wanted.”
There is something very tangible about the actions she undertook, from such a young age, the impact they had then and the impact they continue to have today. And now, more than ever, says Neate, we need to keep the momentum that Jill Saward single-handedly created moving.
“I have been reflecting a lot since I heard of Jill’s death,” Neate continues, “and I have thought a lot about where we are today. We still talk about how far we have to go – and we do. But thinking about Jill’s life and where she started does make me thankful for how far we’ve come. And thankful for Jill. She is a major figure in the women’s movement in this country. She probably wouldn’t have even seen herself that way. I feel that she was.”
Saward said in her lifetime that she did not want to be remembered forever as “the Ealing vicarage rape victim”, as she became known. “Something different would be nice. But it’s not going to happen now,” she said.
I hope it will. We will remember Jill Saward as the woman who changed the course of history through sheer force of indefatigable strength and tenacity, who elevated thousands of victims to become survivors. We won’t remember Jill Saward as a rape victim. We will remember her as a leader and a heroic, impenetrable hurricane of hope. Not just as someone to be inspired by, but to emulate. Now is the time to uphold her legacy and propel it forward. And, especially today, to thank her.