Home > Sexual Violence as a public health issue?

There has been a growing focus in our society on the fundamental need to address the “epidemic” of sexual violence against women and girls.

The statistics bear this out. In the year ending March 2020, 207 women were killed in Great Britain. About 57% of all women over the past decade (2010 – 2020) were killed by someone they knew – most commonly their partner or ex-partner. There were around 4.9 million women in the UK who are believed to have been victims of sexual assault in their lives (according to ONS figures published in March 2020), including 1.4 million women who had been raped, or where rape had been attempted.  98.5% of all rapes or attempted rapes were committed by men.  The Crime Survey for England (seen as a reliable method of measuring crime as it includes both reported and unreported offences) identifies that around one in 10 women aged 16-24 have been a victim of some form of sexual assault over the past year. Figures suggest that whilst 151,000 people were victims of rape according to the Crime Survey, only 59,000 rapes were reported to the police.  And only 1,439 people were convicted of rape.  90% of young people surveyed by Ofsted in response to Everyone’s Invited had seen or knew others who had been sent indecent images: two thirds of 15 years olds have seen pornography. This evidence clearly suggests that public harassment of women and girls is common.[1]

Harassment and sexual violence cause long term problems for women and girls – to their physical and mental health, their employment prospects, their ability to form healthy relationships and in their friendships.  It costs untold billions to our economy.  The WHO has identified sexual violence as a public health issue and said that healthcare workers should be trained to respond to the needs of survivors holistically and empathetically.  But what does this mean in practice?  Resources for victims and survivors of abuse are patchy around this country and there is no “standardised” service provision – whilst there are SARCs (Sexual Assault Referral Centres), which provide specialist services for those who have been raped or sexually assaulted, the long-term support for women and girls is either missing or inadequate.  Furthermore, whilst the Home Office has produced a national strategy, which does recognise the need for prevention, and improvement of support services, is it enough?  NHS England is developing “pathfinder” projects for mental health support for sexual abuse victims and survivors with the most complex needs, and SRE is now taught in all schools.

However, I would argue that unless the need to tackle this problem is embedded in all public services as a priority for work on prevention and treatment, and until we as a society take steps to recognise that our approaches, values and attitudes need to change, then this may well make some improvements, but will not substantially alter the situation in our country.  I hope that the National Strategy is the first step on that road, but much more needs to be done.

Fiona Scolding QC has spent the past five years as counsel to the IICSA and specialises in safeguarding concerning children.  She has also been involved in reviews and policy development of a framework for peer-on-peer harmful behaviours. 

[1] Whilst sexual violence is perpetrated against men (and those who are non-binary or transgender), the vast majority of reported offending is against women.

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