Protected characteristics impact institutional response to child sexual abuse, survivors tell Inquiry

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse has today published a summary of victims and survivors’ views and experiences of protected characteristics. The report found 73 percent of Forum members who took part in the survey felt that their protected characteristics had impacted their interaction with institutions about child sexual abuse.

A list of nine protected characteristics is set out in the Equality Act 2010, designed to protect people from discrimination in the UK. They cover many different parts of people’s identities and individuals can identify with more than one protected characteristic. Members of the Inquiry’s Victims and Survivors Forum were asked how protected characteristics affected their experiences of child sexual abuse and its impact on their life, as well as their ability to access support.

Some members of the Forum who had mental health problems or physical disabilities described feeling dismissed by institutions, such as teachers in schools or social services. One Forum member with learning and mental health problems described how they were treated as “unreliable” by institutions, which made it more difficult to be taken seriously when disclosing that they were sexually abused.

Respondents described how they felt their protected characteristics had made them more vulnerable to child sexual abuse, or reduced the likelihood of them being believed. For example, one neurodiverse Forum member described being targeted by perpetrators who felt they could manipulate and exploit them.

“I am on the autism spectrum and was undiagnosed (this is common in females who tend to get diagnosed later in life) – I feel that due to being vulnerable in this way and not understanding social “norms”, predators could sense this and felt able to manipulate me easily.” – Forum member

Some Forum members felt that their protected characteristics created barriers to disclosing and or reporting child sexual abuse. Female respondents spoke of feeling dismissed and unheard, and described how societal attitudes and stereotypes made them feel unable to report the abuse to statutory authorities.

“The requirement to be a “good girl”, to fit the ideal of a passive compliant child, affected all of my interactions,within institutions,and does so to this day.” – Forum member

Male victims and survivors described being dismissed by institutions, such as the police, when they tried to report being sexually abused as a child. We heard how the stereotypes that men should “man up” can undermine and invalidate their experiences, resulting in male victims and survivors feeling unable to process the abuse suffered and subsequently report to statutory authorities.

Many Forum members said that they received unhelpful responses from institutions due to a perceived lack of understanding of their protected characteristics. For example, some expressed how institutions lacked cultural sensitivity or an understanding of their ethnic background, and felt this led to institutions minimising the harm that they experienced or blamed them for the abuse suffered.

“As a biracial black female my race impacted the sympathy, compassion and belief I got. It also made care home staff see me as a consenting and willing participant in my rape. They refused to see me as a child or as innocent. I strongly believe I was seen as the issue.” – Forum member

The Inquiry also heard from Forum members who had a religious upbringing, that they experienced difficulties in reporting child sexual abuse. The majority of participating Forum members who reported having a religion, identified as belonging within a Christian denomination. We were told by Forum members that in some Christian denominations, the topic of sexual abuse remains taboo which can result in members of some religious communities disengaging from this topic.

Over half of Forum members said that their protected characteristics had affected their access to support. Respondents described a multitude of barriers they faced such as not being taken seriously, mistrust towards organisations, fear of discrimination or concerns that they wouldn’t be understood. Some felt that support services are not tailored to their protected characteristics, and as a result, were left unable to access support that was right for them.

The information Forum members have provided will inform the Inquiry’s Final Report.

More information on how to join the Forum is available here.