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Hundreds of mourners attend funeral of inspirational campaigner Jill Saward

Posted on: January 17, 2017 3:50 PM
Jill Saward 1965 - 2017
Related Categories: England, Gavin Drake, Jill Saward

The funeral has taken place in England of Jill Saward,  who, after being attacked as a young woman, became a campaigner on behalf of survivors of sexual assault. Jill, whose husband, Gavin Drake, is ACNS interim editor, died suddenly aged fifty one. Paying tribute, the Revd Preb Gary Piper, a longstanding family friend,  highlighted her faith: “1977 was a decisive year in Jill’s life. That summer at a youth camp she made a commitment to Christ. It was the most important defining moment in her life. I know she would want me to say that, because I know that it was. It was that commitment that gave her the strength to cope with the traumas that were to come.” He said it was her strength of character which enabled her to achieve so much: “She gave comfort, help and advice to hundreds of women who had been victims of violence and abuse and in so doing she saved many lives and I think some of those are here with us.”

Jill, an identical twin with Sue, was born in Liverpool to the Rev Michael Saward and his wife Jacqueline. The twins had two older siblings, Rachel and Joe and the family moved to London when Jill was two. As a young woman,  Jill Saward was the victim of what became widely known in the media as the “Ealing vicarage rape attack.” In 1986, a gang of men armed with knives broke into her father’s vicarage in Ealing, in west London.  They beat her boyfriend and father;  two of the intruders then raped Jill.  The attack dominated the news and then Jill chose to become the first rape victim in the UK to waive her right to anonymity; it liberated her to campaign on behalf of those who had been raped, and to help the public and, particularly, the police and the judiciary realise how this hideous crime can destroy lives.   

In 1990 Jill produced her memoir, Rape: My story - which has been published in a number of languages.  In a subsequent television documentary she recalled praying during the attack that she would get through it alive – later saying “it took a while but I did get through it.”She set up a help group for victims and their families and became a campaigner on issues including sexual violence, violence against women, forgiveness and justice  -  and also helped in the training of judges, nurses, and police forces in how to deal with rape victims.

Jill Saward’s campaigning led to a right of appeal against lenient sentences being brought in. She also campaigned for sentencing to take into account the impact on victims. Her work helped to bring about a change that prevented accused rapists being allowed to cross examine victims in court while representing themselves. She said she had gained the strength and energy to campaign after forgiving her attackers: “Sometimes I thought it might be quite nice to be full of hatred and revenge but I think it creates a barrier and you’re the one who gets damaged in the end. So although it makes you vulnerable, forgiving is actually a release.”

Tributes poured in for Jill Saward after the news of her death was announced. The Archbishop of Canterbury tweeted : “sorrowed to hear of the death of Jill Saward (Drake), heroic and remarkable campaigner for the victims of rape.” The Director of Communications for the Church of England, the Rev Arun Arora said : “Jill was a truly brave woman who campaigned tirelessly on behalf of victims of sexual violence.  Her courage, fortitude and commitment made her an outstanding campaigner as well as a loyal friend to many. She was much loved and respected and will be greatly missed by those whose lives she touched.”  The Attorney General, Jeremy Wright, said : “Her tireless campaigning opened the eyes of many politicians.”

Reflecting on Jill’s sudden admission to hospital, her husband, Gavin,  said the family, after turning to social media to ask for prayers “had a sense that Jill was on her way to heaven accompanied by prayers from around the world; we had messages from Anglicans, Evangelicals, Catholics and Orthodox Christians. To know that your wife is dying completely unexpectedly and to know that thousands of people around the world are praying for her – I’d never been in that sense of peace. I can’t describe it but there was a sense of spirituality there.”

Writing an online blog on the eve of the funeral, Gavin expressed thanks for the messages of support from around the world:

“Some are from strangers who didn’t know me or Jilly but who were helped by reading her book or seeing her on television or in newspapers; some are from people who had been in direct contact with Jill and had received support from her. Many are from friends. Many are from strangers. But all of them are extremely precious and we are so grateful for everybody who has taken the time to get in touch. Your words and messages mean so much to us........ I am aching. Jilly and I are Christians and even though I know that she is now with our Lord and Saviour the pain of her death is very strong.”

Recalling the aftermath of the attack in 1986, Gavin said that on the following Sunday Jill went to Church and was struck by the words of the Lord’s prayer: “She recognised that if she wanted God’s forgiveness she had to be prepared to forgive as well. She did what she did as a way of giving back to God in thanks for being forgiven. In her own words:   “They’d destroyed enough, I didn’t want them to destroy anything else. Forgiveness gave me that liberation, that freedom, to move on.”  Gavin says the family have been overwhelmed by the international media coverage of Jill’s death: “I knew she had helped a lot of people here and around the world but the extent of the people that’s she’s helped has been a remarkable testament to her Christian faith.”

In a personal tribute at the funeral, Jill’s sister Sue recalled the fun and games of their childhood and how  Jill had always looked out for her. She expressed pride in Jill’s work and campaigning. A musical tribute was given by  Garth Hewitt, who sang “Bread of Life” – the words of which had inspired Jill to do her work.  He described her as a woman of courage and strength who lived the Gospel.  Revd Preb Gary Piper said Jill had gone through some very dark times and “people seemed to have the impression that she sailed through: she didn’t” ...”She was someone who worked to serve her God to make the world a better place. My prayer is that her work will continue.”

Gavin and Jill married in 1993. They had three sons, Myles, Rory and Fergus. Gavin:  “I’ve always been amazed that someone like Jill would have married someone like me. She was a wonderful wife and mother. I always told her I’d married above my station.  I never stopped telling her she was special.”

• Jill Saward (Drake), campaigner, born 14 January 1965; died 5 January 2017