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Are we now achieving justice for women and girls?

Published: 14 November 2022 at 15:57

Theresa Redmond

A blog by Dr Theresa Redmond, Dawes-funded Senior Research Fellow at the Policing Institute for the Eastern Region (PIER).

Dr Theresa Redmond is a subject specialist in child sexual abuse and exploitation (CSAE), gendered violence and how individuals make sense of their experiences. She takes an interdisciplinary approach and is currently leading and working on a variety of CSAE related projects within the PIER team.

Last week, we hosted a public event arranged by our Advisory Board Chair, Nick Alston.

We asked the question ‘Are we now achieving justice for women and girls?’

In my view, the short answer is no, not at all.

We welcomed former Victims’ Commissioner Dame Vera Baird to present her views on this topic. Her stance was exactly the same as mine, and it’s very clear to see why.

Tackling violence against women and girls may be in the headlines more than ever, but the reality of this ‘epidemic’, in terms of the scale of the harm being caused, is largely misunderstood.

The evidence to support the fact that we are far from achieving justice for women and girls is staggering. There is a tsunami of data, evidence, anecdotal feedback and cultural narratives to show this.

In 2021, an Independent Advisor to the End to End Review of Rape, Emily Hunt said:

“How often are rape victims failed by the criminal justice system? The answer is deeply upsetting: nearly always.”

According to the Office for National Statistics, there’s been a dramatic decline in rape prosecutions since 2016. There are an estimated 128,000 victims of rape a year, but less than 20% report this to police and of those who do, only 1.6% result in someone being charged (i).

Rape must surely be one of the most vile, damaging, and traumatic experiences that anyone can go through. If we are violently attacked, surely we instantly tell the police and ask for help. So why is this not happening in the case of rape? Five in six women, and four in five men, do not report (ii).

40% said they were too embarrassed and 38% said they didn’t think the police would help. Nearly half of victims were too embarrassed to ask for help (iii).

Just pause and think about what that means. How utterly devastating.

So what has caused this and how can we change these figures?

Rape myths and sexist ideas are deeply ingrained in our society. They are, consciously or unconsciously, a part of our culture and they permeate our schools, our workplaces, our social venues, and most significantly for justice, our criminal justice system.

I’m sure that most people we ask today would claim they are not sexist, they do not support sexism or misogyny and that yes, we live in a free and equal society when it comes to gender.

But why do nine in ten girls and young women in schools say sexist name-calling and being sent unwanted explicit or sexual images happens to them regularly (iv)?

Why do seven in ten women say they have been subject to exposure, up-skirting or cyber flashing (v)?

Why were 149 women killed by 147 men in 2018, with 91 of them being killed by their current or former male spouse or intimate partner (vi)?

And how many more inquiries and reviews regarding sexual abuse and violence in public services and private institutions will we need to do?

I have worked in a number of roles throughout my career, including working with victims of serious sexual assaults. One particular case sits with me as it involved a 15-year-old girl who had been gang raped.

She lied to the police when asked about the circumstances of her attack. She had willingly got into a car with her attackers, but told police she was forced in.

Why? Because she feared she would be judged for being compliant in getting into the car and would not be believed about what went on to happen.

The result? She was branded a liar, “not credible” and no one was charged for this truly heinous crime.

What does this tell us? These rape myths, rooted in beliefs that women can ‘encourage’ or ‘incite’ men to attack them, or that they ‘asked’ for what happened, are so pervasive that we even know them as children.

Because of what this 15-year-old girl believed would be thought of her, her lie was inevitable. In her mind, what else could she do?

If we are happy to accept that victims of sexual assault can be questioned in court about the length of their skirt or how many drinks they had consumed, why should any woman be compelled to tell the truth about being attacked?

Confronting this and turning the tide on these damaging cultural norms is incredibly complex. Sexism and misogyny within the criminal justice system doesn’t operate in a vacuum, it operates in a wider culture that allows these values to pervade.

It's going to take a seismic shift in how we talk to and teach our children, how we talk about men, women and gender, and the behaviours we choose to normalise. It’s about creating a better narrative that isn’t tainted by ‘the old way’ of defining, positioning and abusing women.

We’re seeing excellent examples of proactive work, demonstrating that it’s possible to make a difference, such as through Operation Soteria, but we won’t see the real impact of this for enough victims until it becomes standard practice in terms of a new, partnership approach to delivering justice.

But, sadly and horrifyingly, we’re also seeing a stream of evidence reporting incredibly misogynistic behaviours within the police too. Harmful behaviours that have been minimised and covered up for decades (vii).

The light on this issue is shining ever brighter and initiatives such as those by UK Feminista, the Everyday Sexism Project, and the Everyone’s Invited campaign mean it is slightly harder to turn a blind eye.

We’re shining the spotlight on how pervasive this narrative is, and by criminalising offences such as up-skirting, we’re demonstrating that we should not and will not accept this kind of behaviour. All of this plays into the development of a counter-narrative that is crucial to seeing change.

The End to End Review of Rape said:

“Victims of rape are being failed. Thousands of victims have gone without justice. But this isn’t just about numbers – every instance involves a real person who has suffered a truly terrible crime.”

At PIER we’re committed to elevating the voices of victims and survivors through our research. I cannot stress the importance of this.

As impactive as the stats I have shared here are, they are numbers. These numbers are linked to humans, and we must not lose the people, the girls and women, at the heart of this.

i. Based on combined data for 2017/18 and 2019/20. ONS, Sexual offences in England and Wales overview: year ending March 2020, March 2021 5 Office for National Statistics, March 2021, Nature of sexual assault by rape or penetration, England and Wales: year ending March 2020.

ii. Office for National Statistics, 2021.

iii. Office for National Statistics, 2021.

iv. Ofsted, 2021.

v. Siobhan Blake, CPS national lead for Rape and Serious Sexual Offences, CPS, 2022.

vi. 149 women killed by men in 2018 – Femicide Census [accessed 14 November 2022].

vii. An inspection of vetting, misconduct, and misogyny in the police service, (HMICFRS, 2022) [accessed 14 November 2022].

Additional references

Counting Dead Women - Karen Ingala Smith, 2019 [accessed 14 November 2022].

Femicide Census, 2018 [accessed 14 November 2022].

Baroness Casey Review of the Metropolitan Police Force, 2022 (PDF) [accessed 14 November 2022].

The Home Office inquiry into the rape and murder of Sarah Everard by a police officer, 2021 [accessed 14 November 2022].

Royal Navy chief orders inquiry into sexual assault claims in submarine service - The Guardian, 2022 [accessed 14 November 2022].

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse [accessed 14 November 2022].