Women and girls are being subjected to an epidemic of sexual violence
Around the world, rape and sexual abuse are everyday occurrences — affecting close to a billion women and girls over a lifetime, irrespective of age, background or country.
16 Days of Activism against Gender Based Violence is an annual international campaign that runs between November 25th and December 10th and calls for the elimination of violence against women and girls. This year, the theme is “Orange the World: Generation Equality Stands Against Rape”, and the aim is to shine a spotlight on the epidemic of rape and sexual assault around the world.
According to 2019 Home Office statistics, in Britain “one in four women will experience domestic abuse and one in five sexual assault during her lifetime”. On the global level, this figure rises to one in three.
Despite the pervasiveness of sexual violence, legislation frequently falls short of international human rights standards. In tandem with laws that are insufficient, inconsistent, or not systematically enforced, is a widespread culture of victim-blaming fuelled by harmful gender stereotypes, limited access to specialised services, and a general lack of political will to protect and promote women’s rights.
Across Europe, it is extremely difficult for survivors of sexual violence and other forms of gender-based violence to access justice. This means there is often impunity for perpetrators which in turn perpetuates further abuses.
In some countries, crimes of rape require the use of additional violence. Proof of such violence usually means evidence of other injuries. The logic goes that if there is no evidence the woman didn’t fight back, she must have wanted sex. There is no recognition here of unequal power relationships, coercive control, or whether there was capacity for consent.
Either through the text of the law or the manner by which it is or isn’t implemented, the message given is that sexual assault only happens when a victim has actively tried or is unable to resist physical force.
Spain, Finland, and France all lack legal recognition that sex without consent is rape. Requiring rape survivors to prove they were subjected to violence or threat, or that they resisted their attacker, is contrary to international human rights standards.
The law should never interpret a woman’s lack of physical resistance to sexual violence as acquiescence in that violence. There are many circumstances in which a survivor of rape may feel coerced or threatened.
Negative social attitudes towards rape and sexual assault mean it is still common for women and girls to be blamed for the violence they experience. In the UK, women who report they have been sexually assaulted are frequently required by the police to hand over their mobile phones, social media passwords, and access to emails so that their past history going back several years, including any past sexual history, can be interrogated. They are also asked to give blanket access to health records and other personal information.
Described by campaigners as a “digital strip search”, this risks adding to a victims’ distress by forcing them to choose between protecting their privacy and pursuing justice. This further disincentives women from coming forward to report what is already a hugely under prosecuted crime, and inevitably means that perpetrators will escape punishment.
In the proportionately small number of rape cases that do make it to court, it is the rape complainant — but not whoever stands accused of committing the attack — that is commonly subjected to intrusive questioning about their previous sexual history.
Alongside the stigma and fear of not being believed that prevents victims from reporting an assault to the authorities, is the abysmally low conviction rate. According to the UK Home Office, over 98 per cent of alleged perpetrators in rapes reported to the police are allowed to go free.
This unreporting, in turn, distorts statistics about the scale of the problem and means that sexual violence remains a more hidden form of human rights violation.
Meanwhile, statistics show that men aged 18 to 24 in England and Wales are consistently less likely to be found guilty of rape than older men on trial, with juries demonstrating a particular reluctance to punish young men for serious sexual assaults.
Sexual violence does incredible physical, psychological and consequential harm, preventing women and girls from realising their full potential.
Governments need to engage in an honest and committed conversation with survivors of sexual violence, civil society groups, law enforcement, and service providers. They must redouble their efforts to put systems in place to prevent sexual violence and amend laws and legal systems to prevent sexual violence and to ensure justice when it occurs.
By Tara Carey, Equality Now
Equality Now is an international human rights organization that works to protect and promote the rights of women and girls around the world by combining grassroots activism with international, regional and national legal advocacy.
It’s international network of lawyers, activists, and supporters achieve legal and systemic change by holding governments responsible for enacting and enforcing laws and policies that end legal inequality, sex trafficking, sexual violence, and harmful practices such as child marriage and female genital mutilation. For more information go to www.equalitynow.org or follow on Twitter @equalitynow.
This article first appeared in The London Economic.