Why are we not talking about Sexual Violence?
Sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) is the perpetration or threat of violence upon a person based upon their gender (UNHCR, 2020; sometimes referred to as gender-based violence (GBV)). While men and boys should not be overlooked, as they too are victims, most victims of SGBV are women and girls (The World Health Organisation, 2003).
The World Health Organisation (2017) estimates that one in three women will experience SGBV during their lifetime. This issue is aggravated in times of crisis; such as the global pandemic COVID-19, where the UN Population Fund (2020) estimates that an additional 31 million cases of SGBV will occur within six months of isolation. Not only is SGBV widespread, it also has extensive consequences, including social and economic impairment (Loya, 2015), as well as detriments to physical and psychological health (Garcia-Moreno et al., 2005; Jina & Thomas, 2013).
SGBV encompasses all aspects of gendered violence including both domestic and sexual violence, amongst many others. So, why does most data included within violence against women reports during COVID-19 only focus on domestic violence?
UN Women (2020) have recently published a report concerning how to end violence against women and girls during COVID-19. However, only data about global increase in domestic violence prevalence and calls to domestic violence helplines are provided. Sexual violence is unmentioned.
An additional recent mini-review on GBV during COVID-19 discusses the impact of the pandemic upon all aspects of GBV and makes recommendations for how to tackle this (Mittal & Singh, 2020). Nevertheless, only increases in domestic violence are discussed. The absence of statistics about sexual violence is a glaring omission. This highlights a common issue in advocacy work for sexual violence – a lack of data.
Without good quality and consistent data on sexual violence it is difficult to get policy makers to understand its importance and allocate resources to the problem.
The absence of data in turn leads to a relative lack of policy recommendations concerning sexual violence during COVID-19 in comparison to policy concerning domestic violence. The United Nations Development Plan (2020) synthesizes global GBV recommendations in the wake of COVID-19. Policy highlights include Spain having made women exempt from lockdown if they are seeking refuge from domestic abuse, and Columbia offering cash transfers to victims of domestic violence during COVID-19 to ensure their economic independence. In contrast, there is a dearth of policy guidance specifically for protecting people from sexual violence during COVID-19.
Why are data and recommendations focused almost exclusively on domestic violence?
Is it because sexual violence is infrequent?
Both domestic and sexual violence occur at an alarming rate, and statistics often consider them simultaneously. The WHO (2013) present global prevalence data for SGBV and found that 35% of women worldwide have experienced intimate partner violence (physical and/or sexual) or sexual violence perpetrator by a non-partner during their lifetime. Therefore, both forms of violence deserve discussion for resources to be allocated to them to protect victims and enhance their access to justice.
Is it because we think that sexual violence is perpetrated by a stranger, therefore there is less that we can do to prevent and protect victims of sexual violence?
Recommendations for refuge and aid are just as important for sexual violence victims as they are for domestic violence victims because victims of sexual violence may also need to escape their abuser. Overall, 90% of sexual violence incidences in the UK are perpetrated by someone known to the victim (Ministry of Justice, 2013). Additionally, sexual violence and domestic violence often co-occur so it is difficult to disentangle the two in terms of who deserves aid. But by not prioritizing sexual violence as a violation that deserves aid, we are suggesting to those victims that their lived experiences are somehow less serious or less important than domestic violence. This discourages victims from reporting the horrendous acts which have been perpetrated against them and from accessing help.
Continuous collection of rigorous data on sexual violence is required to advocate for increased resource allocation to preventing, protecting, and prosecuting cases of sexual violence. Without this data, how can we hope to increase discussion about sexual violence?
Sexual assault awareness month is not until April and 16 days of Activism takes place once a year. Whilst awareness periods are fantastic to bring forward discussions of these horrendous crimes, we should not wait until then to discuss this incredibly important topic. We need to start continuous conversations about sexual violence now for change to occur.
Laura Stevens MSc
PhD Candidate at the University of Birmingham. Supervised by Dr. Heather Flowe and Dr. Melissa Colloff