STAGE Data Analyst Stella Liapi shares her experience of supporting women in her current capacity and her previous role as an ISVA (Independent Sexual Violence Advisor).
CW: References to sexual abuse, overdose and death.
In light of the 16 days of activism against gender-based violence, I want to talk about what justice or lack of thereof looks like for the cohort of women I have supported over time whilst working for Changing Lives. Below you will find the video recording of the webinar hosted by STAGE back in April on access to justice for adult survivors of sexual exploitation.
Prior to working as a research and data analyst for STAGE, I was a specialist Independent Sexual Violence Adviser (ISVA) for GAP & MAP, a project that supports individuals who have been exposed to exploitation and/or those involved in survival sex or sex work. I had an active caseload of women that had all experienced sexual abuse at least once in their lifetime by a family member, friend, acquaintance and so on. The women I used to support were often classed as ‘too complex’ by service providers and ‘unreliable witnesses’ by the justice system, due to their alcohol and drug misuse, complex mental health needs etc. It is heart-breaking to think that none of the cases I was involved in went past the police stage of the investigation.
I remember having a conversation with D, a woman I used to support, following a rape disclosure, during which she told me that "They [perpetrators] can’t go to prison every time I get raped." This statement shook me to the core and is something I think about to this day. For women like D, that have been repeatedly targeted for the purposes of sexual exploitation and abuse, it appears that justice is a privilege. Women’s vulnerabilities and layers of trauma triggered by abuse are more than often used to explain and justify the perpetrator’s behaviour. Victim blaming attitudes are deeply rooted in our society and attitudes, and one cannot fight to eradicate them alone. Both in our professional and personal capacity we ought to challenge such harmful perceptions and work together to create a safe space for victims-survivors.
Several months ago, I found out that a woman I used to support had passed away following a drug overdose. During the time I was supporting her, which was less than a year, she was raped on four different occasions; however, none of the cases were taken to the CPS, let alone the court. It saddened me so deeply that she passed away having gotten no semblance of justice after what she had been through and made me think of all the victims-survivors still fighting to be seen as ‘deserving’ that are continually failed by the systems put in place to safeguard them from harm.
The STAGE project, supported by the National Lottery Community Fund, brings together charities specialised in adult sexual exploitation – Changing Lives, A Way Out, GROW, Together Women, Basis, WomenCentre, Ashiana and the Angelou Centre – to provide trauma-informed support for women who have been groomed for sexual exploitation across the North East and Yorkshire. Since its creation, STAGE has been working on informing policy change, including advocating for the introduction of a statutory definition of adult sexual exploitation. We campaign for long-term structural change to allow the voices of the women that were actively excluded to no longer be ignored, and for perpetrators to brought to justice.
Finally, this year's theme is ‘UNITE! Invest to prevent violence against women and girls’. Let’s all continue raising awareness and push for urgent funding and investment on women’s organisations that work relentlessly on preventing violence against women and girls. Partnership, advocacy and campaigning is the only way forward.
If any of the issues we’ve raised affect you or someone you know and you need support, you can get in touch with us on email@example.com or call us on 01912738891. You can find out more about the type of support we offer here.