Being heard and believed - the starting point for all sexual assault cases
High conviction rate is almost the sole measure of accountability in sexual assault cases. Historically, high conviction rates demonstrated success in holding offenders accountable and therefore, in bringing justice to victims. Whilst the tendency to rely on conviction rate is logical, conviction rates alone shows so little about how victims are treated and handled, how charging decisions are made, what kinds of victims get left behind by those decisions and whether victims themselves value "justice" in terms of convictions alone.
For example, if one finds that most convictions have come from guilty pleas by the offender, this is an indication of issues in sexual assault investigations and trials which are not equally resulting in prosecutions and convictions.
Take for example that one finds that most rape cases which are indicted end up in a conviction (as it appears to be the case in Afghanistan). On the surface, this might look like news to celebrate. However, a more in-depth inquiry might suggest that prosecutors are only prosecuting "winnable" cases. This begs the question: how many victims are getting left behind? And what decisions are being made about their testimony, version of events, and evidence that are preventing their case from receiving justice?
I am just recalling an Instagram post by Free Women Writers from Afghanistan about one of the fundamental aspect of justice from the eyes of the victim: Believe. Showing a victim that we believe in her. We need to start thinking of justice as: being heard and believed.
Being heard and believed is something that is "done" upfront. So I ask a more global question: what is being done upfront to ultimately lead us to getting better outcomes for victims?
Let's talk about being heard and believed. How do we hear and believe? Hearing and believing are not passive actions. It starts with: I hear you. I believe you. But the next step is: challenging counter-intuitive behaviours and myths which are barriers to hearing and believing. When we step up our advocacy, we show that we hear and believe AND we demand that others do so as well.
Go and pull out facts of a case which show the real nature of sexual assault: facts which show manipulation, isolation and use of power play. These facts demonstrate what sexual assault, i.e. that it is not just a matter of sexual touching, molesting or penetration but indeed, that it is a power play by one person over the vulnerability of the other. Get the prosecutor, judge, law enforcer to see, hear and appreciate that. But pull out those details. Because "penetration" and "touching" alone doesn't show much.
I return to the question: what is success in a sexual assault case? Conviction, being believed and heard, feeling empowered. So now we also need to think about how are we measuring success? We can introduce performance measures in our day-to-day case management and document how victims feel about the process. We can ask clients:
- How did you feel about the process? Did you feel that your story was heard or believed?
- Did you feel safe during the process?
- Did you feel aware and informed of what's going on?
- Were you compensated?
- How can we serve you better?
Get in touch with me for more information on legislative and policy reform around sexual assault at email@example.com. We are also looking to touch base with advocates globally for exchanges on the same.