Updated: Nov 6
‘Betrayed’, ‘shamed’, blamed’, ‘disregarded’; these are all words that come up repeatedly in the testimonies of survivors who have experienced secondary victimisation in the aftermath of a crime.
As they are failed and further traumatised by the institutions that are designed to protect them, victims around the world are deprived of the opportunity to heal from the devastating impact of violent assaults and ongoing abuse.
Fearful of not being believed, met with hostility or even being blamed for the very crimes they report, many victims are silenced by the prospect of secondary victimisation. Some are so deterred by initial contact with police that they feel unable to pursue their case. For others, the distress they endure as they seek justice and support leaves them wondering whether it was even worth reporting at all.
In this post, we’ll outline how the prospect and reality of secondary victimisation pervades for victims of abuse and violence across the globe.
The Impact of Secondary Victimisation For Survivors of Domestic Violence
Estimates published by WHO indicate that globally about 1 in 3 women have been subjected to physical or sexual intimate partner violence in their lifetime.
Equally shockingly, a study found that 63% of women who had been victims of domestic violence reported experiencing secondary victimisation within the criminal justice system. Individuals who report domestic abuse often encounter hostility or victim-blaming from law enforcement, and continue to suffer due to justice systems’ failures to offer adequate protection from and fair sentencing for their abuser.
‘Why Didn’t You Just Leave?’
Many victims of domestic violence face the question: why didn’t you just leave?’. This loaded question is often posed not only by a victim’s family and social network, but also by law enforcement and the justice system when they report the abuse.
This question reinforces the damaging perception that victims engage in self-destructive behaviour by choosing to stay in relationships that harm them. This outlook fundamentally burdens the victim with a sense of responsibility for ongoing domestic abuse and violence. As a result, the victim is often seen as a non-legitimate victim and is denied the respect and justice they deserve from the legal system.
The impact of this betrayal cannot be underestimated. In the UK, the charity Women’s Aid reported the dismissive response from the criminal justice system left many women wishing they had never reported domestic violence to begin with and that they ‘felt more like a criminal than a victim’. They found it difficult to be heard and many women reported feeling blamed, disbelieved and dismissed.
Victims Mistaken for Aggressors
Victim-blaming of victims of domestic abuse is so endemic that women are regularly misidentified as the perpetrator in family violence incidents.
In Australia, the Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence noted a repeat pattern of women being labelled as the primary aggressor when the use of self-defence, substance abuse or mental illness are present. Alarmingly, the report also found that ‘some police officers believe that a woman who retaliates cannot also be a real victim, as if the two behaviours are mutually exclusive’.
Another report published in the UK by charity Victim Support, found that huge gaps in language support across the criminal justice system are leading to victims who don’t speak English as a first language being wrongfully arrested when trying to access help from law enforcement.
In one example, a perpetrator who spoke English as a first language was able to interrupt conversations between the victim and police to cause confusion, ultimately resulting in the victim being mistakenly arrested for the very crime she was trying to report.
Ignored and Endangered
The prospect of secondary victimisation - of being disbelieved, met with hostility or even being misidentified as the perpetrator - means that victims are often deterred from reporting domestic abuse.
The impact of this secondary victimisation can be catastrophic. Not only are abusers not held liable for their actions, but cycles of abuse can be exacerbated to put victims in potentially life-threatening situations. In the UK, domestic abuse victims report abuse to the police upwards of three times before appropriate action is taken. Given the fact that globally 38% of all murders of women are committed by intimate partners, this lack of police action is costing women their lives.
Sexual Violence and Secondary Victimisation
Worldwide, approximately 36% of women have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime. Victims are often traumatised not only by the initial assault, but also by how they are treated with hostility and distrust by doctors, police officers and lawyers as they attempt to seek justice.
“What were you wearing?”
One way in which rape and sexual assault vicitms are consistently re-victimised is by invasive questions that infer that they are partly responsible for an attack. From dissecting a woman’s clothing and mannerisms to questioning choices they make - such as walking alone at night or drinking alcohol - these speculations shift responsibility from the perpetrator onto the victim’s shoulders.
To highlight the global scale of the victim-blaming that underpins such questions , US civil rights organisation Rise partnered with the UN Spotlight Initiative to stage the ‘What Were You Wearing?’ exhibition. The exhibition displays the clothes that 103 rape survivors were wearing at the time they were attacked.
One of the women who took part, Britney Lane, was sexually assaulted by a coworker during a night out with friends. She said, ‘what were you wearing?’ was the first question she was asked by almost every police officer and doctor she came into contact with in the wake of the assault.
Explaining the impact of the secondary victimisation she experienced, she says she was ‘filled with embarrassment, shame and guilt’. These words appear repeatedly in countless testimonies of victims who have been met with hostility and distrust by the very institutions designed to help them.
Not Believed and Betrayed
In the UK, a recently published damning examination into how police forces tackle rape exposed persistent failings that betrayed vulnerable victims of sexual violence.
It found that some police officers stated that they believed most reports of rape are just examples of ‘regretful sex’. It also found that, if the victims presented issues such as mental health problems or alcohol or substance abuse, some police officers believed that the legal system ‘was not obligated to safeguard them’.
The report also found that, due to an explicit lack of a belief in victim statements, there were also persistent failures to track repeat suspects. Similarly, in the United States, reports have found that more than 100,000 rape kits are currently sitting untested in police storage.
This represents 100,000 rape survivors who not only had to endure the invasive and traumatic processes required to obtain DNA evidence, but who have been further re-victimised by the betrayal of not having their cases acted upon by law enforcement.
In countries with less robust legal systems and more societal stigma surrounding sexual violence, secondary victimisation in the aftermath of an assault or rape is even more prevalent. In India, an in-depth study found that a majority of rape victims’ cases were still in process 4-7 years after the initial attack.
The report describes how multiple visits to courts, delays in trials, repetitive questioning on invasive topics, insensitive remarks by judges and uncooperative and disinterested public prosecutors were the norm for victims of sexual violence. As a result, all 63 victims who participated in the study reported ‘persistent physical and mental health consequences even after several years’.
Although legal systems and processes inevitably differ from one country to another, in all corners of the globe secondary victimisation permeates criminal justice systems.
For victims of abuse and sexual violence, distrust, blame and betrayal all too often define their experience with the law. Not only does this further traumatise victims, but it makes it even more difficult to heal the emotional wounds caused by the original crime.
Independent victim support services that can provide dedicated care are therefore essential to help individuals process complex trauma and feel safe and supported within the legal system.