AWARE welcomes initiatives to better support sexual assault victims in criminal justice system

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The Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) welcomes the government’s initiatives to promote a more victim-centric approach in handling sexual assault cases by the criminal justice system, said the local NGO on its press release on 17 February.

The NGO states that the sensitive and empathetic response to survivors of sexual assault is critical to both their psychological and emotional recovery, as well as their willingness to engage with the reporting process which help the criminal justice system to hold perpetrators accountable.

Jolene Tan, Head of Advocacy & Research at AWARE said, “A victim-centric process is better for everyone, it better meets victims’ needs, and it assists investigators by eliciting greater cooperation and confidence from victims, making it easier to find out the facts.”

AWARE hopes that these improvements will help to address under-reporting and attrition of sexual assault and sexual harassment cases in the criminal justice system.

“In our experience at SACC, such incidents are substantially under-reported,” said Ms Tan, adding that a majority of their clients do not report their experiences to the police.

The main reason cited by its clients for not making police reports is a fear of not being believed or not having enough evidence. Other top reasons were worry about how their family and friends would react, and fear of public exposure.

The most frequently reported offense was rape (more frequent than either physical or non-physical sexual harassment). In 2016, 338 people reached out to AWARE’s Sexual Assault Care Center (SACC) – 41 percent of them was in connection with rape incident.

Among young people, a 2014 survey by AWARE found that only 6 percent of sexual assault or harassment victims sought help of any kind, including but not limited to police reports.

AWARE has worked closely with the Serious Sexual Crimes Branch (SSCB) of the Singapore Police Force (SPF) over the last three years.

“We regularly provide SSCB with our clients’ feedback on their experiences with the police investigation process. SSCB has been receptive to this feedback and has been committed to ensure a supportive experience for the cases that we have referred to them,” it said.

Ms Jolene Tan said, “The current initiatives will help to ensure that police processes and capabilities are improved on a systemic level, not just on a case by case basis.”

AWARE presented its comments on specific elements of the initiatives.

OneSAFE pilot

AWARE welcome this pilot program and hope to see similar services rolled out with greater availability in the future.  Clients of SACC have frequently reported frustration and difficulty due to the number of trips, long waiting times, and multiple statements about the assault, when reporting sexual assault.

By combining medical assistance, forensic examination and police reporting, this initiative has the potential to make the reporting process much less onerous and stressful.

Training video

AWARE greatly appreciate SPF’s move in conducting this training to proactively ensure a more consistent understanding of the victim perspective among officers, as everyone needs to be able to approach the police with confidence.

In society at large, AWARE see many misconceptions about sexual assault and a lack of understanding of the reality of victims’ experiences. For example:

  • There is a tendency to criticise victims for irrelevant choices such as their clothing, appearance or actively socialising.
  • There is widespread misunderstanding that there is no ‘perfect’ or ‘normal’ way to behave after an assault – some people cry, or make reports immediately, or physically struggle against a perpetrator, but not all behave in these ways.
  • People do not realise that trauma can affect how victims give their accounts, leading to what may appear to be gaps in memory.

These misunderstandings about what the victim ‘should’ do affect how we talk to them and what we believe, this can discourage them from engaging further – which may impact the ability of investigators to gather facts – and it can also harm victims psychologically and emotionally.

Because the police occupy a special position, it is particularly important that they are systematically sensitised to ensure that they can fulfill their mission of seeing to justice and the safety of victims.

Punishment

In AWARE’s experience, what its clients primarily need is supportive reporting and investigative measures, and an assurance of accountability.

Victims tend to seek greater certainty of enforcement rather than severity of punishment.  In fact, overly harsh punishments  can actually deter reporting, especially as many perpetrators are known to the victims.

AWARE hope that the government will consider the extensive criminological evidence collected by researchers and the lessons of best practices in other jurisdictions, in conducting its research.

Punishments should be proportionate and support both rehabilitation as well as justice.

Information Pamphlets for Victims - AWARE said that this is a good first step to address the reality of under-reporting and welcome it.