Orange the World:
Fund, Respond, Prevent, Collect!
Each year, the 25th November marks International Day of the Elimination of Violence against Women. This is followed by 16 Days of Activism against gender-based violence, ending with Human Rights Day on the 10th December.
For organisations like ours, every day is the day to eliminate VAWG. Frontline support services and campaigning organisations work tirelessly all year-round, to respond to, challenge, and prevent Violence against Women and Girls (VAWG), whilst ensuring that survivors can access the specialist support, they deserve.
The theme of this year’s 16 Days of Activism is FUND, RESPOND, PREVENT, COLLECT. Here’s what these mean to us at Rape Crisis South London.
The UN calls for urgent and flexible funding for women’s rights organisations. We know that sexual violence services are chronically underfunded and there is not the capacity to meet demand, with survivors facing frustrating and disheartening waiting lists.
There are just over 40 Rape Crisis Centres in England and Wales, but it is estimated that there would need to be 150 to meet the needs of survivors around the country. Sustainable, flexible funding for services responding to sexual violence and all forms of VAWG is a must, so we can continue our essential work.
Each survivor deserves to be believed, heard, validated and empowered. At Rape Crisis South London, each service we offer is informed by our Empowerment Model, where survivors and their needs and choices are placed at the centre of any response.
Outside of the VAWG sector, we work with professionals in other agencies and sectors, supporting them to think about how the Empowerment Model fits into and complements their way of working, so survivors can receive the best possible response wherever they disclose.
A survivor-centred approach extends to our work within the criminal justice system. The UN places an emphasis on a criminal justice system response: we hold that it is important that each survivor is given the opportunity to make the choices that feel right for them, and many will not choose to report to the police for a variety of reasons. Our Independent Sexual Violence Advocates support survivors who are thinking about reporting to the police, or who already have, so they are informed and have an independent space to discuss their options and receive practical and emotional support.
This year is not like every other year, as the COVID-19 crisis and lockdown measures have exacerbated violence against women and girls. Many women and girls have been trapped at home with abusive partners, family members or housemates, facing increasing violence and abuse. Many survivors have lost safe and supportive spaces as services have moved online or closed their doors. Where possible and safe to, our services have adapted to support survivors remotely, and the conversations we have with survivors on our Helpline and Email Support Service highlight the importance of accessible support throughout this period.
We don’t believe that sexual violence is inevitable – we believe it can be prevented. This belief underpins all the prevention work we do in schools, colleges, universities and youth settings.
All too often, sexual violence is overlooked or dismissed – with harassment labelled ‘banter’, or harmful behaviour excused under ‘boys will be boys’. We also see a huge push back when sexual violence is taken seriously – with people claiming ‘you can’t even talk to a woman anymore without being accused of harassment!’
In order to effectively prevent sexual violence, we must take harmful, abusive and non-consensual sexual behaviour seriously. It must be consistently named and acknowledged, instead of minimised, excused or ignored.
This can feel like a tall order when sexual violence is as common as it is, and supported by extremely prevalent social attitudes about sex, gender norms, relationships, and consent. That’s why any prevention work also needs to recognise that sexual violence is gendered, and is disproportionately targeted at women and girls and disproportionately perpetrated by men and boys. We must also challenge the very gender stereotypes and social norms that reinforce inequality. Furthermore, any prevention work must consider how multiple inequalities and oppressions including around race, disability, sexuality and religion, may inform a survivor’s experience of violence, harassment, and whether they are heard or taken seriously when seeking support.
A core to our best-practice approach to prevention is challenging myths, and a big part of this is about holding those who perpetrated violence and abuse accountable. For too long, so-called prevention messages have been aimed at survivors: particularly telling women and girls what they should or should not do to ‘keep themselves safe’ from the threat of sexual violence. These messages, however well intentioned, reinforce sexual violence myths and can further harm to survivors. Those who perpetrate harmful and abusive behaviour hear these messages too – which excuse their behaviour by placing the onus of ‘keeping survivors safe’ on survivors themselves.
Any prevention messages should be aimed at the person who has harmed someone else. These messages should be clear: the people who engage in perpetrating behaviour or abusive behaviour need to take responsibility for this. They can – and must – make different and better choices.
When we do prevention work we focus on engaging empathy and talking about the impact of harmful behaviour.
We know that a prevention approach that looks solely at legal thresholds doesn’t create the space required for a conversation about ethics and rights. So, we swap out saying ‘don’t rape or sexually assault others, because it is a crime and you will get into trouble’ for ‘don’t rape or sexually assault others because it hurts someone else, and it’s not okay’. This is a rights-based, survivor-centred approach to prevention that focuses on empathy and accountability.
Any person can be part of building a world without sexual violence and everyone has a role – within and beyond the 16 Days of Action. We train young people and students as ‘active bystanders’ so they feel confident and skilled up to notice when sexual harassment is happening, and have the tools to intervene in a way that feels safe to them .
The UN is calling for data collection for the improvement of VAWG and gender-based violence services – only where it is needed, and if it can be ensured that data collection will be survivor-centred and adhere to ethical safety standards. For many survivors, anonymity and confidentiality are paramount: it can be so hard to reach out for support because of societal shame, blame and disbelief that all too often falls at the feet of survivors. Many want reassurance that their personal information and what they have shared will be kept safe.
We know that sexual violence is underreported and do not tell us the full story. We also know that numbers can never communicate the depth of the impact of sexual violence and other forms of VAWG. At Rape Crisis South London, whatever the data tells us, we still believe one rape, sexual assault, or instance of sexual abuse is too many. Every form of sexual violence needs to be challenged and every survivor deserves support.