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“It’s not OK.”

This is the message of the Sexual Abuse & Sexual Violence Awareness Week. The campaign wants us to understand that it is not OK. It wants to get us talking about the different forms of sexual violence, and more importantly how to prevent them. We need these words now more than ever. As communities of women fight back against both oppression and powerful people, the words “it’s not OK” are vital. They are what we need to channel into change. And they are powerful.

Increasingly more and more women are feeling able to speak out, and consequently reports of sexual violence to the police have hit an all-time high. It comes as no surprise, then, that there is more pressure on the police, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and the courts – the UK’s criminal justice system – to respond.

So far, the response is not enough. And that is not OK.

Survivors of sexual violence should always be at the heart of any criminal justice process. Speaking out takes a huge amount of energy and courage. Deciding to report to the police should always be an individual choice, one free from pressure and blame. It must not be forgotten that taking steps into the unknown of the criminal justice system can be a scary and intimidating experience.

This is why what happens after making the decision to report is so important. Below are some ways things can be improved for every survivor going through the criminal justice system:

RECOGNISING THE BARRIERS TO REPORTING

 We all have our own lived experiences and perspectives that make us who we are. Just as there is no set way to respond to the trauma of sexual violence, every survivor will have different feelings about their involvement with a police investigation. This is totally OK.

Hearing that from the police themselves can make a big difference.

The police must understand the reasons many survivors are distrustful of them and ensure everyone who does make the choice to report feels as safe and supported as possible. There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach. There should always be access to specialist support for women of colour, LGBTQIA+ survivors, sex workers, non-able-bodied survivors and survivors with mental health needs.

A huge barrier to reporting is survivors feeling they will not be believed. In a society that holds many myths around sexual violence at its core, criminal justice agencies must consistently challenge these myths in their response and hold belief as the baseline

ISVAS

All survivors should have immediate access to independent support and information about the process and what happens. This is so they can make fully informed choices before or after they report to the police.

Every survivor should also be given the option of having an Independent Sexual Violence Advisor (ISVA). An ISVA provides practical, factual and emotional support throughout the criminal justice system, and can help reduce the stress of a sometimes overwhelming system. There is more information on ISVAs here: https://www.rasasc.org.uk/independent-sexual-violence-advocate-service/.

Importantly, funding cuts mean that not every support service is able to offer ISVAs. The few specialist organisations that do are fighting hard to make sure their ISVAs are able to meet the demand, as more and more survivors make the decision to report. Across the country, services that provide specialist support must be protected so that everyone gets the support they deserve.

FIRST CONTACT WITH POLICE

The very first contact with the police matters. Every single report of sexual violence should be taken seriously. Survivors deserve respect and the trauma they have experienced acknowledged.

Being able to report directly to specially trained police officers and having a choice about any gender preference can help survivors to feel more in control. At Rape Crisis South London, we have put this in place so that there is always the option of reporting to the police in a safer space, such as our centre, with specialist ISVA support on hand. This should be available everywhere.

 EFFECTIVE TIMEFRAMES

 Budget cuts and upheavals to the way that the criminal justice system works have had a huge strain on the police and the CPS’ ability to make timely decisions on whether to take cases forward.

It can take more than two years from reporting to finding out whether or not the case will go to court. This is not ok. Many survivors describe feeling like they are in limbo, unable to move on with their lives while they wait to find out the police and the CPS’ decisions. There needs to be a more robust response to make sure decisions take place as quickly as possible, and survivors are kept informed every step of the way.

 WHAT WE CAN DO

 It can feel like we are completely powerless in a world of police and lawyers, but our voice matters. The more we speak out against these problems, the harder it will be for those in power to ignore us:

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