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sexual abuse underreported in british south asian communities

Sexual abuse reporting rates, while low in general, are lower than would have been expected for those living within British South Asian communities according to new research by the University of Hull and the University of Roehampton.

Published this week in The British Journal of Criminology, the research highlights that powerful cultural norms within British South Asian communities are preventing incidences of sexual violence being reported.

The research calls for a national training programme to be implemented urgently including compulsory education within all schools to help keep women and children in British South Asian Communities safer.

Authors Dr Harrison – Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Hull – and Professor Gill – Criminologist at the University of Roehampton – identified a number of barriers within British South Asian communities that lead to sexual abuse being even less likely to be reported. These include:

  • Honour and consequential shame
    • South Asian culture assigns a higher value to purity than some Western cultures
    • numerous women and girls living in these communities bear the responsibility for the honour of their families
    • if virginity is lost outside of marriage – even through sexual violence – the woman will encounter loss of family honour, along with shame, stigma, public ostracism and, in some cases, forced marriage and honour-based violence
    • once honour is lost, it can never be repaired
  • Lack of awareness
    • Low understanding of what constitutes sexual abuse
    • a particular lack of awareness surrounding marital rape
  • Infrastructure 
    • Many women were restricted in terms of the buildings they were allowed to frequent; this presents a major barrier for those wanting to access services
    • language barriers may also be playing a part
  • Modesty
    • As modest and highly private women, even discussing being a victim of sexual violence is seen as dishonourable
  • Fear of not being believed
    • As well as fearing that their stories would not be believed, victims fear that ultimately no action will be taken against their abusers leaving them highly vulnerable.
“Data suggests that incidences of sexual violence among South Asian women and children are low, however our research has found that these crimes are happening – but are not being reported due to particular cultural norms that exist within these communities.” Dr Karen Harrison, a Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Hull

On the subject of honour and sexual abuse, one of the practitioners interviewed as part of the research said: “They think it’s not going to be just the family they have to deal with but the whole community, and they’ll feel repercussions from [that]. A lot of times . . . the male doesn’t take on any blame or any responsibility for their actions. It’s always the female who is blamed for whatever happens.”

One of the victim survivors, aged 46, interviewed as part of the research said: “It’s all conditional love in the Asian families and that’s what honour is all about – there is no unconditional love in Asian families. Honour is more important to them than their own child’s happiness. It’s down to the woman to keep her own dignity and self-respect. The concept of honour is about honouring the family and the community at the cost of the individual.”

The findings indicate a continuing need for culturally sympathetic policies and welcome the Welsh Government’s lead in this field: Wales has recently passed its Violence against Women, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence (Wales) Act; the first of its kind in the UK. The researchers recommend that the English Government follows suit in creating a national training programme. The report argues that support needs to go still further and that both England and Wales should adopt strategies for British South Asian populations including:

  • compulsory education for school children of both genders on healthy relationships –  beginning with age-appropriate learning in primary schools and continuing throughout a person’s education
  • the introduction of community workers and peer support – who attach themselves to the venues and groups women are ‘allowed’ to go to – to help bridge the gap between victims and support agencies
  • novel approaches to awareness-raising such as community-lead debates
  • the introduction of more ‘safe’ venues children’s centres, women’s centres or drop-in centres where several charities and services are all housed under one roof

Dr Karen Harrison, a Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Hull, says: “If sexual abuse in British South Asian communities is to be eradicated rather than covered up, it is important to a) identify ways to help victims overcome barriers and b) understand what practitioners need in order to support this population.

“In addition; we can no longer claim that some groups of people are hard to reach when there are mechanisms and strategies indicating that this idea is simply not true. We have uncovered a number of successful initiatives operating in these communities that raise awareness of what constitutes sexual violence and encourages women and children to report crimes in a way they feel safe. Unfortunately, however, much of this best practice is offered on a localised basis.

She concluded: “It is shameful if support services exist but women cannot access them simply because of physical infrastructure. We would like to see more innovative and effective approaches to outreach and awareness-raising initiatives so that genuine change can be achieved. The protection of women and children from all types of abuse should not be a postcode lottery and we fervently hope that politicians and policymakers will use our research as a first step towards achieving this ambition.”

The research used a mixed methodology approach using focus groups and semi-structured interviews with survivors of sexual abuse, women living in South Asian communities in England and Wales, Imams, practitioners and criminal justice agent and government departments. The full report Breaking Down Barriers: Recommendations for Improving Sexual Abuse Reporting Rates in British South Asian Communities is published in the current issue of the British Journal of Criminology.

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