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By Georgina Colby
The Network for Contemporary Feminisms at University of Westminster held a symposium on Sexual Violence Against Women: Voice and Representation on Friday 17th June 2016 in London. This summary focuses on the aspects relevant to women seeking asylum.
Keir Starmer MP, then Shadow Minister for Immigration gave a talk focussing on three cases that concerned violence against women and girls that he worked on in his role as Director of Public Prosecutions and head of the Crown Prosecution Service from 2008 to 2013.
A number of very significant issues emerged from the cases, offering insights into the struggles that women and girls who have been the victims of sexual violence face when reporting the crimes to the police. A key issue in Keir Starmer’s talk was the need for safe places to report crimes of sexual violence against women and girls. Keir discussed cases that revealed the difficulty that victims of sexual violence have in voicing their experiences to police and within a Court of Law. Keir outlined the need for employers to offer help to victims of domestic violence in the workplace.
The need for proper access to counselling was a central issue that Keir raised, and a point that was addressed throughout the day. The case studies discussed by Keir revealed the ways in which the legal system hinders the confidentiality of victim’s narratives if they choose to have counselling.
The first panel of the afternoon, ‘Sexual Violence: Belief and Credibility’, brought together three speakers from public-facing bodies: Akima Thomas, Clinical Director and founder of the Women and Girls Network; Dr Carlene Firmin, MBE, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Bedfordshire and head of the MsUnderstood partnership; and Debora Singer, MBE, Policy and Research Manager at Asylum Aid.
Akima Thomas gave an important talk that centred on the issue of critical remembering. Her paper resonated with Keir Starmer’s concerns over counselling provisions for victims of sexual violence. A practising therapist, Akima offered an understanding of the essential role that therapy plays in helping women with the pain and struggle of coming to terms with their traumatic experiences. Akima opened by reading affirmation cards written by women and girls who have experienced sexual violence. The affirmations voiced survivors’ testimonies and highlighted the importance of storytelling and testimony as modes of resistance.
Carlene Firmin offered a rigorous position paper that took up the issue of credibility. Through a number of analytical slides and empirical analysis of statistics, Carlene brought to light the struggles that women and girls meet in terms of credibility when discussing experiences of sexual violence. The paper discussed vulnerability factors, violent and unsafe contexts where young women experience sexual harassment.
One slide detailed the narrative of a young girl’s testimony by the Crown Prosecution Service, and the problematic language used to narrate her experience. Carlene’s paper exposed the issues surrounding credibility, and the way in which cross-examination of testimonies misinterpret the women’s and girls’ voices and can lead to a perceived lack of credibility within a ‘culture of disbelief’; it revealed that in focusing on young women’s behaviours and choices, rather than the contexts in which those behaviours or choices occur, the professional response to sexual exploitation fails to sufficiently recognise the social nature of abuse.
Debora Singer addressed the issues of credibility for women seeking asylum. Debora’s talk took up the issue of a ‘culture of disbelief’ in cases in which women have been refused asylum based on negative assessments of credibility. She discussed her work on ‘Double Standards Facing Women Seeking Asylum in Europe’ and the Protection Gap Campaign. The question of interpretation and oral testimony was a critical point raised. Inconsistent narratives for women and girls who have experienced sexual violence are often the result of trauma, as are gaps in memory, and, for women seeking asylum, language barriers and errors in translation.
Three vital issues emerged in the discussions during the first panel: critical remembering, contextless accounts, and the struggle of women and girls to narrate their testimonies within a culture of disbelief. The question of language was central to all of the papers; women and girls face a double oppression in terms of narrating their traumatic experiences of sexual abuse. Trauma often creates non-linear testimonies for women and girls who have experienced sexual violence and these testimonies can then be discredited on the basis of their non-linearity. Non-linearity is often falsely read as a form of inconsistency.
Furthermore, testimonies are personal, subjective accounts, the objective language of the law often oppresses testimony told in subjective language, and submits personal accounts to an institutional interpretation.
The symposium is the beginning of a larger project ‘Sexual Violence Against Women: Empowering Voice and Enacting Change through the Arts and Humanities’. The hope is that in forming a cross-disciplinary community, it will be possible to foster solidarity and create the conditions for bringing about positive change in the area of sexual violence against women.
Georgina Colby is Lecturer in English at University of Westminster
This article was originally published in Women’s Asylum News 136 June/July 2016.