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Sexual violence among women selling sex and experiencing sexual exploitation during Covid-19

Changing Lives is today publishing a shocking report in to how the Covid-19 pandemic has had devastating consequences for women facing abuse and violence across the country.

Data collected during the first four months of lockdown shows a 62% increase in the number of women disclosing that they had experienced sexual violence – although there are reasons to believe that the actual figure is much higher than this.

Jennifer Harrison, Head of Policy and Public Affairs at Changing Lives, said:

“We are concerned that this increase does not reflect the true extent of the sexual violence and abuse happening in our communities. For example, in the North East there has been an increase of 179% and we believe this is closer to the reality of women’s experiences because there has been a sustained commitment and investment in multi-agency working across this area. In 2013 Northumbria Police created a Dedicated Liaison Officer role trained in supporting people selling sex and adults exposed to sexual exploitation. Over time, this model has shown to have increased women’s confidence to disclose crimes to services and report crimes to police.”

The findings also show a marked increase in repeat victimisation, whereby women are experiencing multiple crimes against them including, but not restricted to, sexual violence, physical violence, and domestic abuse.

These are women who are already at increased risk of harm due to their existing vulnerabilities, such as homelessness, addiction, and poverty, but are slipping through the net when it comes to accessing the support they urgently need.

The data was collected from 15 Changing Lives services across the North East, Yorkshire, and the Midlands which, between them, supported more than 1,850 women during the four months from March 2020.

Jennifer said:

“We decided to conduct this research because we became increasingly concerned that women with existing vulnerabilities were at increased risk of sexual violence. We saw an 83% increase in the number of women accessing our specialist services for the first time in the first four months of lockdown. We continue to see unprecedented demand for our services, as well as significant and adverse impacts on women’s physical and mental health, including an increase in suicide attempts and self-harm.”

With women unsafe at home or within their communities, and unable to access support from under-pressure public services, many women have found themselves with nowhere to turn.

Three quarters of the services surveyed said the women they support were ‘somewhat unconfident’ or ‘very unconfident’ of reporting crimes to police. Of the disclosures made to police, over two fifths were investigated and closed because the victim decided to withdraw.

Changing Lives staff report that the reasons for this include, stigma and discrimination, fear of criminalisation and victim-blaming.

Laura Seebohm, Executive Director – External Affairs at Changing Lives, said:

“The women we support feel they are unable to access justice. Across all of the services included in our research, there have been zero convictions for any sexual offences reported to the police since the beginning of 2019. As the pandemic continues, we are calling for urgent action to support women with existing vulnerabilities who are selling sex and/or experiencing sexual exploitation, including increased provision of specialist services and greater protection under the law.”

You can download the full report here.

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