Reporting Rape: How the Justice System is Failing Victims of Violence

Photo credit: Reuters

Violence against women and girls remains one of the most prominent and pressing issues of inequality globally, with at least one in three women around the world becoming a victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime. In the UK, one in five women have experienced some type of sexual assault, according to official analysis of violent crime figures by the Crime Survey for England and Wales. Despite the fact that the UK comes in at 14th on the Gender Inequality Index (1st being most equal), 173 women were killed at the hands of their partners over the last year and more than 85,000 were raped.

Over the past few weeks, there has been a lot of press concerning the experience of victim-survivors reporting instances of sexual assault in the UK as organisations attempt to shine a light on the monumental and often fruitless task of taking to trial crimes of rape and sexual assault. There is little chance of the perpetrator being brought to justice, and time and time again women have described how traumatic navigating this system can be. Of course, there are many who have found closure through this process and have had positive experiences with the police and legal professionals. Last week Cosmopolitan published the article What really happens when you report a rape detailing the experiences of 15 people across the UK, including the testimony of one woman who stated that “I think reporting this crime and going through the justice system has really aided my recovery and I am so pleased that I did it” after her perpetrator received a nine year sentence. However, for many women this is not the case.

Repeatedly, victim-survivors have described instances of inadequate communication from officials, concerns for their personal safety and perceptions of the system being weighed in favour of the accused all as challenges in their own justice journeys. The majority of rapes and sexual assaults are not reported to the authorities as the legal process can be a lengthy and daunting one. However, systemic failures to reporting victims are at the heart of such low confidence in the current system as one that fairly and adequately represents the interests of women taking the brave step to report.

The End Violence Against Women Coalition, one of the projects funded by The Circle’s Chai Day initiative, is in the process of taking the Crown Prosecution Service to court over the ‘catastrophic’ drop in rape prosecutions (down by 44% since 2014) whilst the increase in the number of rapes reported to the police is up by 173%. The lobbying organisation ‘have heard from many women who have decided to report rape to the police; have endured what can be very gruelling questioning and possibly medical examinations; have had to sacrifice their phone, computer and personal records; endure an agonising wait; to then be told that the case has been dropped’ whilst the Guardian reported last year that a training session at the CPS encouraged prosecutors to take the ‘weak cases out of the system’ to improve its conviction rate.

A culture that discourages victims from speaking up to report their abuse is not one that supports its most vulnerable. Global Feminism is a movement designed to highlight the rampant inequalities across the globe that women and girls still face, drawing attention and encouraging action to the abuses suffered by women globally.

For the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, The Circle wanted to examine the process of reporting for victim-survivors around the world and the enforcement of women’s right to be free from harm through The Circle’s projects providing front-line services to victims of violence. Despite the increased our exposure and awareness of the issue of sexual violence in the aftermath of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, victims of rape and sexual assault are still being victimised and consistently let down by the criminal justice system.

Scotland

Rape Crisis Scotland estimates that one in ten women in Scotland has experienced rape and one in five women in Scotland has had someone try to make them have sex against their will. Furthermore, according to Scottish Social Attitudes Survey 2014 collected evidence to suggest people believe that in certain situations women are at least partly to blame if they are raped. Only 58% said a woman who wore revealing clothing on a night out was ‘not at all to blame’ for being raped and 60% said the same of a woman who was very drunk. The survey found that around a quarter of people agreed that ‘women often lie about being raped’. These findings are shocking and indicate a level of blame put on victims of violence that permeates the processes within the criminal justice system.

Earlier this year, researchers at the University of Glasgow produced a report on justice journeys and found that while positive experiences were identified, victim-survivors continue to face challenges at each stage of the criminal process. The testimonies described a disparity between survivor expectations and experiences: perceptions of the system being weighted in favour of the accused, that the prosecutor did not adequately represent their interests and a sense of being marginal to the process. None of the victims were given back their personal possessions taken as evidence, an invasive practice in the first place, nor did they know what happened to their items. In addition, some felt that crucial evidence had been overlooked, taken incorrectly, or in some cases not taken at all.

I was made to feel that I was hysterical […] when you’ve been in a domestic abuse situation and these types of men, they tell you you’re hysterical or you’ve got mental health issues or you’re nuts or you’re crazy or you’re a fruitcake. That’s the language they use. So […] when the authorities use it, what does it do? It puts up a brick wall.  – Beth

One could argue that these challenges are not particular to rape cases and that the judiciary system could be confusing and long-winded for those not versed in legal jargon or suffering from anxiety as a result of the crime in question. However, it remains the case that in Scotland and the rest of the UK, courts have consistently low conviction rates for gender-based violence crimes and a system that discourages victim-survivors to come forward. In the instances of the research undergone by University of Glasgow, many have been faced with a lack of respect, information and support within the justice system and under-funded services such as Glasgow and Clyde Rape Crisis assume must step in and assume responsibility for this support. Overwhelmingly, the services of a counsellor were considered invaluable throughout the judiciary process. The counsellors from services such as Rape Crisis provide emotional support but also detail the process of going to court with victim-survivor in an attempt to prepare them for what can be an intimidating prospect.

With support from The Circle and Chai Day, Glasgow and Clyde Rape Crisis has been able to extend their drop-in service for survivors and launch The Rosey Project, providing support for young women who are survivors of rape, sexual assault or sexual bullying in response to an increasing demand for services for women aged 13 to 25.

Siyanda and her son, who stayed at the Nonceba Centre after leaving an abusive relationship.

South Africa

The most recent data from the World Health Organisation shows that South Africa’s femicide rate was almost five times higher than the global average in 2016. Despite national outcry from protestors around the country and the #TotalShutdown movement, violence remains high and in recent weeks the media in South Africa has and continues to report stories of victims who have been murdered and attacked. According to the One in Nine Campaign, although 66,000 rapes are reported to the police in South Africa annually, the total number of rapes is much higher and is estimated to be between 600,000-1,650,000; of these, a fraction lead to convictions.

Jackie Nategaal wrote that one of the reasons that the criminal system is ‘failing survivors’ is a pervasive rape culture that still exists. Arguing that victims are often treated dismissively because there is an expectation of, even an inevitability of violence towards women. Amnesty International supports this argument as the Executive Director in South Africa, Shenilla Mohamed, released a statement stating that ‘it is nothing short of a national emergency that femicide and rape rates are increasing countrywide’ and that the first steps for making change would be:

ensuring that police officers are properly trained to sensitively and objectively investigate incidents of gender-based violence … ensure that gender-based violence is taken seriously at every level of the justice system, including by challenging discriminatory stereotypes about victims and survivors.”

Similarly, in a reflection paper from the International Commission of Jurists, it was stressed that although there has been a domestic violence legislation in the country since 1998, there is a lack of implementation of the act in the process of reporting a crime. The paper states that ‘the burden of pursuing a claim falls onto victims who are given documents from the court with the onus to progress these themselves despite their uncertainty in how to do so’.

We see victim-survivors being discouraged at every stage of the process, impeding their access to justice. It is clear that negative attitudes and prejudices are influencing the way that woman are treated in the judiciary system resulting in not only a woefully low number of convictions but also a prevalence of shame placed on the victim.

The Circle supports the Nonceba Family Counselling Centre in South Africa, located in Khayelitsha, a township just outside Cape Town. For years, unemployment and crime rates have been high, particularly around violence against women and children with little services and support for the victims. The centre has a shelter for women who have survived domestic violence or have been victims of human trafficking. Most women in the shelter are HIV positive, are struggling to access healthcare and have received limited education and training.

India

Violence against women is the most common form of human rights violation in India. Shame, stigma and a lack of support from the police and legal system prevent many women from reporting domestic violence and seeking help.

In 2012, the rape of a 23-year-old woman in New Delhi, prompted protests across the country that were demanding huge reform in the criminal justice system to and protect future women across the country. Despite promises by the government to take concrete action, it seems that sexual violence is as common as ever. India’s National Crime Records Bureau reveals that 38,947 cases of rape were registered in 2016 9 increasing by 12.4 from the previous year. World Politics Review has observed that at this rate, ‘a woman is raped in India about every 15 fifteen minutes’ and goes on to state that an estimated 99 percent of rape cases in India go unreported. As in Scotland and South Africa, women do not feel confident and safe in reporting their assault.

Whilst there is a level of shame ascribed to victims of sexual assault in India, for those who do come forward and choose to make an allegation to the police the process can result in further shaming and dismissive responses.

“The doctor said to my daughter ‘If they had forced themselves on you, there should have been marks on your body – but you don’t have any. You must have done this of your own free will.” – Palak’s mother, Palak (name changed to protect her identity), a Dalit woman, was 18 when she reported being kidnapped and raped in Madhya Pradesh, in June 2013.

A number of sources have described demeaning medico-legal care for survivors of sexual violence, including the ‘two finger test’, in which ‘a doctor notes the presence or absence of the hymen and the size and so-called laxity of the vagina of the rape survivor, to access whether girls and women are “virgins” or “habituated to sexual intercourse”’. Although this practice is now punishable under section 166B of the Indian Penal Code, a Human Rights Watch investigation found that treatment and examination such as this was still occurring in recent cases of serious sexual assault. This practice can be traumatic, particularly for those who have recently suffered rape and sexual assault and seeks to dismiss claims based on supposed sexual history, placing blame on the victim themselves.

Human Rights Watch also found that police were often reluctant to file allegations, particularly for victims from a socially and economically marginalised community. Citing that ‘police sometimes pressure the victim’s family to “settle” or “compromise”’. Often, Dalit or other “low-caste” families are encouraged to drop their case if the perpetrator is of a higher caste.

One of the projects funded by last year’s Chai Day was a number of survivor centres in rural communities of Chhattisgrah and Odisha to challenge the social acceptance of sexual and domestic violence against women. In Chhattisgarh, there has been State-Level Consultation on the State Gender Equality Policy, which had not been revisited for more than a decade. Projects and community building like this are essential to support victim-survivors who feel they are unable to approach or are refused help by the police.

Bina and her son were offered counselling and legal support.

Canada

ACT Alberta is an anti-trafficking organization in Canada working collaboratively law enforcement, government agencies and non-governmental organisations to identify and respond to human trafficking in Alberta. One of their primary operations is providing victim support services for victims of sexual trafficking, in which they delivery trauma recovery, improve access to the justice system and obstacles within that system for victims. It is important to note here that the service receives funding from the Canadian government for those victims who are willing to go through the judiciary system, however, as we have seen in previous countries, women often feel that this isn’t an option, particularly those from marginalized communities and those whose immigration status may be at risk. Victims who do not have permanent right to live in Canada are often wary of approaching the police for concern that they will be deported, believing that their current situation is preferable to returning to their country of birth.

Indigenous women and girls are widely identified as being at particular risk of experiencing various forms of gender-based violence in Canada, including human trafficking. By comparison, an Independent article from last year states that ‘94 per cent of Native American women living in Seattle say they have been raped or coerced into sex at least once in their lifetime’ and The New York Times indicates that ‘indigenous women and girls make up about 4 percent of the total female population of Canada but 16 per cent of all female homicides’. According to ACT, this is due ‘in part to the effects of historical and ongoing colonialism, and the legacies of the residential school system, dispossession of identity and culture, violence, racism, and marginalization.’

Not only are the support services few and far between for these women but the judiciary system is also failing them. In the case of Tina Fontaine, a 15-year-old girl from the Sagkeeng First Nation in Canada, ‘she was seen by provincial child welfare workers, police officers and healthcare professionals yet within 24 hours she was found dead’. The Times quote her great-aunt Thelma Favel who claimed that “Canada and the system failed Tina at every step”.

In cases across the world, even those women and girls who come forward are being dismissed and let down.

Tina Fontaine’s great-aunt, Thelma Favel showing a photo of the girl. Photo credit: Aaron Vincent Elkaim for The New York Times.

Across the globe, attitudes towards victims of rape and a prevailing tolerance for rape and serious sexual assault is resulting in a lack of justice for victim-survivors. Women are reluctant to come forward and when they do, their experiences can be traumatic. Front-line services delivered by our Chai Day projects are so important because the judiciary system is failing women who make the brave decision to come forward and report rape and serious sexual assault.

It falls on projects like Rape Crisis, ACT Alberta and the Nonceba Centre to fill the gaps in services that the judiciary system is failing to provide, to support victim-survivors through their navigation of the criminal justice system and ensure that their rights are being observed. These organisations are woefully underfunded and often receive incredibly limited or no funding from the government.

“I guess, the, kind of, base point for all of that was [local] Rape Crisis believed me. They never questioned me. They never challenged it. They’ve never said, well I don’t know, when the police seem to think different. They’ve always believed me and they have gone from that perspective, and so I knew I could trust them. And that trust has, you know, built and remained … they worked at putting, sort of, coping mechanisms in place for when I couldn’t manage” – Rebecca

Chai Day is about gathering together with friends, family or colleagues to raise funds to support survivors of gender-based violence. November 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, and the sixteen days that follow is your chance to host a Chai Day.

All you have to do is invite a few friends, brew a pot of chai and raise funds to make a difference for women around the globe. Head to The Circle’s website for more information and to download your online resources!

This article was written by Anna Renfrew. Anna is The Circle’s Projects and Communications Officer and has been heading up preparations for our Chai Day campaign. She has written a number of articles for The Circle, taking a particular interest in the global issue of violence against women.

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