Seeking justice after experiencing sexual violence can be a complex process for victim-survivors. For many, seeking conventional justice (through a criminal justice system) can provide a strong sense of reclaimed physical space in their lives. However, for some this may not be the right decision. Indeed, for many victim-survivors around the world, turning towards a justice system may be entirely impossible due to the political climate of their country and the lack of resources available. This article examines some of the ways victim-survivors of sexual violence have been failed by criminal justice systems and society’s beliefs. I will also explore the importance of alternative means of justice, recognising how, as a society, we should seek to support these alternative forms of justice to destigmatize victim-survivors’ choices for how they pursue to rebuild their lives.
An Epidemic of Sexual Violence
It is estimated by the World Health Organisation that worldwide 1 in 3 women will experience a form of either physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. Sexual violence is highly gendered as it can act as a means to control and oppress women. That is not to say, however, that men do not experience sexual violence. Indeed, 9% of sexual assault victim-survivors are men and the stigmatisation produced under a patriarchal structure leads to the underreporting of this. Sexual violence is pervasive, widespread, and often hidden. Furthermore, the extent of sexual and physical violence towards women is estimated to have increased exceptionally since the Covid-19 pandemic.
At present, some UN policies have begun to tackle sexual violence globally. This includes the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Istanbul Convention, and UN Action who is an internal body within the UN specifically tackling sexual violence in conflicts.
‘Gender-based violence, including sexual violence, is a violation of fundamental human dignity and rights.’-UN Women
WHO has recognised the effects sexual violence can have on a person’s health. To list just a few, the effects of sexual violence can include injury, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, unintended pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, and even suicide. As a result, sexual violence is now very much recognised as that of a public health crisis.
In addition to the effects on a person’s health, sexual violence can have both social and economic costs. After an assault, many victim-survivors may be unable to work due to the impact on their health as mentioned previously. This inability to work not only leads to feelings of isolation but also impacts their financial situation. This leaves many victim-survivors economically vulnerable and in positions where they can not look after themselves or sometimes their children. In some instances, where the perpetrator was an intimate partner, victim-survivors have to stay with their abuser and be dependent on them.
The Failure of Justice Systems
It can be hard for victim-survivors to decide to go to the police and report their crime. Societal stigma, humiliation, self-blame, shame, and the traumatic experience of reporting, all compound as to why sexual violence is an underreported crime. The way in which the justice system is failing victim-survivors does not make this decision to report their assault any easier.
It has been argued that when turning towards the criminal justice system, victim-survivors of sexual violence are further victimised by the deeply embedded (often misogynistic) beliefs within the justice system. Firstly, due to the presence of rape culture in many societies, victim-survivors experience victim blaming. For so long, victim-survivors have been blamed for their assault, even when in the courtroom, an assumed ‘safe space’ for victim-survivors. An example includes a trial in 2014, where a Canadian judge proceeded to ask a victim-survivor of rape:
‘Why couldn’t you just keep your knees together?’
The way in which victim-blaming is so deeply ingrained within these systems demonstrates the rational fear victim-survivors have when reporting their assault. To further compound this, vulnerable groups can experience this process differently. For those who have previously been victimized before, it has been suggested that they are less likely to be believed when reporting a new assault and are considered ‘unreliable’. Likewise, victim-survivors with mental health conditions, learning difficulties, and substance use issues are harmed by the negative labels society attaches to them. As a result, they are also seen to be ‘unreliable’ and ‘untrustworthy’ in court. This data implies how justice systems are simply further victimizing those who have experienced sexual violence and have refused adequate support for victim-survivors.
The numerical evidence also directly points to the failure of justice for victim-survivors. For example, in America, it is estimated that only 18% of rape prosecutions end in conviction. Similarly, in 2018 in England and Wales, only 1.7% of reported rapes were being prosecuted. However, it must also be noted that for countries in political turmoil and conflict seeking justice through conventional means is rarely even a choice. Becoming a victim of conflict-related sexual violence often means relying on external NGOs to provide support as national systems may have collapsed in conflict.
In addition to the already existing failure of the justice system, Covid-19 has added even more obstacles for victim-survivors. As previously mentioned, intimate partner sexual violence has increased since the Covid-19 pandemic. However, Covid-19 has also created limited access to sexual and reproductive health services for victims of rape, and seeking justice has been put in a precarious position for some women. Many courts have been prioritizing ‘exceptionally urgent’ cases, and when cases do go ahead, most trials are relying on technology. This poses great harm to the estimated 546 million women around the world who do not have access to a mobile phone, they are simply excluded from this option.
Read how COVID 19 has impacted women.
What are Alternative Forms of Justice?
As demonstrated, the conventional means of seeking justice are simply not the right decision for many. These systems have not been designed with victim-survivors at the centre and are therefore a tormenting and frightening experience that many do not want to enter. It is, therefore, useful to understand alternative forms of justice experienced by victim-survivors.
Aligning specifically to the work of McGlynn and Westmarland (2019), ‘kaleidoscopic justice’ refers to the multifaceted nature of justice and its complex forms. Justice is not linear, but rather justice is a long and complex process that does not end when the perpetrator is prosecuted (or not). To reduce justice into something that is attained after conventional justice is unhelpful. The long-lasting effects of sexual violence demonstrate that justice is also a long and complex process that for many is ever-evolving. Recognized ideas of justice include:
Recognition, Dignity, Voice, Prevention, and Connectedness
Recognition as justice can be achieved when society recognises the seriousness of the assault. This can be established through the offender recognizing the harm they have caused to the individual and acknowledging that this was wrong. However, it can also mean having family, friends, and the community believing the victim-survivors account and recognizing the harms caused.
Dignity further develops into this notion of recognition, not only is dignity a fundamental human right, but it is foundational to how the above recognition must be experienced. This includes outsiders supporting the victim-survivor sensitively. It is taking the victim-survivor seriously and putting their needs at the centre.
Voice, as described by McGlynn and Westmarland, is a way in which victim-survivors can be actively involved in seeking their justice. A key part of ‘voice’ is, of course, speaking out and gaining back their voice that they may have lost. Voice allows victim-survivors to speak their truth and make sense of their assault often through a storytelling narrative. It is a powerful tool that enables a level of involvement and agency for the victim-survivor.
Prevention links to how victim-survivors can feel a sense of justice through participating in preventing sexual violence from happening at all. It can include calling for change through education and consciousness-raising. For example, the Me Too movement was a highly important tool for victim-survivors to uncover the prevalence of sexual violence through their storytelling and personal disclosures. Participating as an advocate against sexual violence can empower victim-survivors and be a way of seeking their own justice.
Connectedness links to all of the alternative forms of justice listed above. It is a way in which victim-survivors can feel whole again after the assault and are fully accepted and supported by those around them.
This conceptualization of alternative forms of justice demonstrates how healing for victim-survivors can be viewed through a different lens. As previously stated, justice is not necessarily achieved just because the perpetrator has been convicted or not. Sexual violence is in itself complex and therefore justice must also not be reduced into a simple form but instead viewed as a lived and ongoing experience.
Find out useful resources for healing survivors of sexual abuses.
Sexual violence can have long-lasting effects on the health and wellbeing of victim-survivors. There must be a call for action to criminal justice systems around the world to confront the ingrained beliefs that fail women. Victim-survivors must be able to have the choice of turning to a fully operating, empathetic justice system that is accessible to all. However, we as a society must also respect victim-survivors’ choices in how they seek their own justice. Justice is complex and personal to every victim-survivor. Victim-survivors must not have their experiences invalidated just because they decided not to turn to the justice system.