By Kieran McCartan, PhD, & David Prescott, LICSW
International Women’s Day on Tuesday the 8th of March 2022 focused on “Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow”. The field of sexual abuse is often, and rightly, seen as a women’s issue as it tends to impact women more than men. However, this is a bit of a red herring as it’s really a community issue, usually committed by men against women and often underplayed, ignored, or even validated by some communities and groups. This is not to dismiss it as a women’s issue, but rather to expand the discussion and recognize it’s a social issue that we all need to respond to and work towards preventing, regardless of our gender. We all need to part of the conversation, because preventing violence against women and girls needs the engagement of men and boys.
The End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW) is a coalition of more than 120 specialist women’s support services, researchers, activists, victims and survivors, and NGOs working to end violence against women and girls in all its forms. As part of International Women’s Day, EVAW produced a snapshot report documenting the extent of violence against women and girls in England and Wales. The report is a useful tool in highlighting the extent and nature of abuse currently, existing best practices, and the changes needed to respond to it. While the report covers a range of violence against women and girls (femicide, sexual abuse, domestic violence, online sexual abuse, abuse in public spaces, and others), our focus here is on sexual abuse and rape. The report indicates that in England and Wales:
- In the 12-month period ending in September 2021 sexual offences recorded by the police were the highest on record, at 170,973 offences, a 12% increase from the same period in 2020. Rape accounted for 37% of these offences (63,136 offences).
- 2.9% of reported sexual offences and 1.3% of recorded rapes resulted in a charge or summons, which has fallen from the previous 12 months.
- 41% of rape victims and survivors withdrew their support for action through the criminal justice process and declined to pursue criminal charges.
- The London Victims’ Commissioner’s 2021 London Rape Review also found that among those who allege rape or sexual assault to police, 65% withdrew support for the case, an increase of 7% in the last two years, with nearly two-thirds of London rape victims and survivors who drop their complaint doing so within a month of going to police, and the proportion of withdrawals tripling in two years.
- Latest Office for National Statistics data show the disproportionality of sexual assault against minoritized and marginalised women with Black and mixed-race adults more likely to experience sexual assault than white or Asian adults.
- Cases with white victims and survivors are 1.2 times more likely than Black victims and survivors to result in a charge, and 1.8 times more likely than when victims are Asian (6.7% vs. 3.7%).
- 10 police forces did not bring a single charge over the rape of a Black victim during the five-year period, despite recording 148 reports between them.
- Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) investigation into police officers who abuse their position for a sexual purpose has shown a sharp rise in reported cases in the past three years, with this form of abuse now comprising the single largest form of police corruption they encounter.
- After the launch of the Everyone’s Invited, 16,000+ testimonials of sexual abuse in schools were shared from girls as young as 11 years old. The testimonials named 10% of all the schools in England. Following these revelations, Ofsted launched a review that found 9 out of 10 girls had experienced sexist name calling and 92% of girls had been sent unsolicited explicit pictures or videos.
- Girlguiding’s 2021 Girls’ Attitudes Survey found that 19% of girls aged 11-16 and 33% aged 17-21 said they had been sent unwanted sexual images online in the last year, and 9% of girls aged 13-16 said they felt pressure to share images of themselves that they’re not comfortable with.
The report highlights that there is still a lot of work needed to respond and prevent violence against women and girls. At first reading, the report is disheartening and frustrating, but it paints a realistic picture of nature of abuse in England and Wales. The report demonstrates that we must do more, and offers a number of recommendations, some of which are familiar (i.e., a multi-year, well-resourced public attitudes campaign to end violence against women and girls; a strategic investment to end abuse; far-ranging reform to the criminal justice system’s approach to this abuse; a victims’ bill that responds to the diversity of victims and survivors’ experiences with greater rights and entitlements), some of which are ongoing (i.e., ratification of the Istanbul Convention; An online safety bill that comprehensively tackles online abuse), and some of which are innovative (i.e., effective protection and support for migrant women; support for schools to implement a whole school approach). Because it enshrines a community based approach, we would like to highlight a human rights approach to violence against women and girls, as a key, essential argument in the prevention (and the cornerstone of the Istanbul Convention), as the right to live without fear of sexual abuse and violence is a vital human right for all women and girls in England Wales, as well as globally.
The prevention of violence against women and girls is everyone’s responsibility. While the London Victims’ Commissioner’s report focused on England and Wales, the reality is that these are issues everywhere. While different countries may have different abuse rates, as well as different attitudes, behaviours, and reporting mechanism, it is safe to say that we all need to improve our responses and prevention activities. Sexual abuse exists everywhere globally, and it’s time for the global community to step up with appropriate responses to this women’s health and human rights issue.