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A Culture of Silence

Sexual abuse reporting rates are lower than expected for women living in British South Asian communities, according to joint research by the Universities of Hull and Roehampton.

Published in The British Journal of Criminology, the research highlighted that powerful cultural norms in those communities are preventing sexual violence from being reported.

Authors Dr Karen Harrison – Senior Lecturer in law at the University of Hull – and Professor Aisha Gill – criminologist at the University of Roehampton – identified factors in British South Asian communities that mean sexual abuse is less likely to be reported.

These include

  • honour
    • South Asian culture assigns a higher value to purity than some Western cultures
    • numerous women and girls in these communities bear the responsibility for their family’s honour
    • if virginity is lost outside of marriage – even through sexual violence – the woman encounters dishonour, shame, stigma, ostracism and sometimes forced marriage and honour-based violence
  • lack of awareness
    • low understanding of what constitutes sexual abuse
    • lack of awareness surrounding marital rape
  • infrastructure 
    • many women are restricted in terms of where they are physically ‘allowed’ to go: a major obstacle for those wanting to access support services
    • language barriers may also play a part
  • modesty
    • as modest and highly private women, even discussing sexual violence is seen as dishonourable
  • fear of being disbelieved
    • besides worrying that they wouldn’t be believed, victims fear that no action will be taken against their abusers – leaving them highly vulnerable.
"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." Dr Karen Harrison
Senior Lecturer in Law, University of Hull

On the subject of honour and sexual abuse, one of the practitioners interviewed 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. 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.”

The research recommends that the Government implements a national training programme and adopts strategies for British South Asian populations including

  • compulsory education for children (of both genders) on healthy relationships –  beginning with age-appropriate learning in primary schools
  • the introduction of community workers and peer support – who attach themselves to the venues and groups women are ‘allowed’ to go to – bridging the gap between victims and support agencies
  • awareness raising such as community-lead debates
  • the introduction of more ‘safe’ venues where several charities and services are housed under one roof


Dr Harrison said: “It is shameful if support services exist but women cannot access them simply because of physical infrastructure. 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.”

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