Sexually abused BME women ‘seldom heard and don’t benefit from specialist support’ – report

Black and minority ethnic (BME) women who are sexually abused are being let down by racialised responses from health professionals, police and social services, a report has suggested.

Research by UK-based BME organisation Imkaan and the University of Warwick found that women repeatedly came up against strong deterrents to seeking justice or engaging with support services.

Black Caribbean women in particular expressed not feeling heard by police, and having to encounter slow and racialised responses that “cast them as the problem”, according to the first UK national study on the experiences of BME sexual abuse survivors.

During the court process, some BME women described facing threats from family members and perpetrators for taking criminal action – complaints which were not always taken seriously by police unless they were supported by specialist women’s services, survivors said.

Women who used sexual assault referral centres (SARCs) described the experience as “blunt” and focused on the criminal justice system rather than their support needs, “with a notable lack of understanding about minoritised women’s intersectional experiences”, the report said.

One woman said she spoke to her GP about being raped by her husband, but the doctor wanted to talk to both of them together, while others felt they were judged as not being “genuine victims”.

In another case, a 15-year-old British-south Asian schoolgirl was abused for years by her grandfather and eventually confided in a school counsellor, but police got in contact with her parents – who brushed the allegations off after her uncles “got together to get their story straight” – rather than going directly to the complainant.

She said her relatives accused her of bringing shame on the family. It was only when she was referred to a specialist BME women’s support worker that her specific needs were recognised and she was given advice on how to leave the home.

The report – Reclaiming Voice: Minoritised Women and Sexual Violence Key Findings – was presented to MPs in Parliament (pictured)on Wednesday, and said: “Professional responses frequently betrayed a lack of understanding about minoritised women’s contexts or the nuances of their experiences, and instead were marked by assumptions about the issues affecting them.”

Report authors Ravi Thiara and Sumanta Roy added: “Over and above the value they placed on specialist women’s services, almost all of the women spoke about the importance of ‘seeing themselves’ in the services they accessed.

“Having earlier access to BME workers who understood the nuances of their lives and the totality of their experiences based on the intersecting impacts of racism and sexism, without having to explain, and the importance of feeling respected and understood without discrimination enabled women to feel safe, to open up about their contexts and pressures, and to know they would not be judged.”

The researchers, who conducted in-depth interviews with 36 BME women who used support services and 37 health care practitioners, urged MPs to address the volume and harm of sexual violence BME women are subjected to, and called on the Home Office’s next strategy dealing with violence against women and girls to set out clear expectations for state agencies to address support gaps.

Imkaan chief executive Baljit Banga said: “The research addresses a gap in understanding the experiences of minoritised women and sexual violence.

“It particularly sheds lights on those experiences of minoritised women that are seldom heard and who do not benefit from specialist support.

“The research refers to this as the multiple silencing strategies and it is these strategies that are reproduced in times of austerity.

“To address this the research advocates a more comprehensive understanding of the experiences of minoritised women.”

A Home Office spokesman said: “We want all victims of rape or sexual violence to have the confidence to report these horrific crimes, knowing they will get the support they need and that everything will be done to bring offenders to justice.

“We are determined to address the long-standing inequalities that exist in many areas and are spending £35million this year to fund 47 sexual assault referral centres. This will help victims get the best possible response, regardless of age, gender or race”

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