New NSW System Aims To Eliminate Language Barriers Associated With Underreported Sexual Assault

Content warning: This article discusses sexual violence in a way that may be distressing to some readers.
Photo by Eylül Aslan
At least half of all women in Australia have experienced sexual harassment, abuse or violence. That’s 1 in 2 that has been sexually harassed, 1 in 3 that has been physically abused and 1 in 5 that has been sexually abused. Let that sink in. With #FiredUp, Refinery29 Australia makes an ongoing commitment to spotlighting this serious and pervasive issue with the goal of dismantling gendered violence in Australia.
While sexual assault is devastatingly prevalent in Australia, it's still underreported by victims due to a variety of reasons — from social stigmas around sexual assault, to the lengthy legal process, or accessibility barriers.
On January 13, the NSW Police Force unveiled an enhanced version of its Sexual Assault Reporting Option (SARO), which will allow victims of sexual assault to anonymously provide information without having to take part in a formal police interview.
While SARO has existed since 2012, the new version will be available in 12 languages, making the reporting option more accessible to victims in culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities.
The system replaces the previous process of printing and completing a 14-page document and emailing the State Crime Command’s Sex Crimes Squad, and is meant to represent a victim-first approach to addressing sexual assault.
"While the online portal does not commence a police investigation, it empowers victims of sexual assault to take the first step and record their sexual assault, whether or not they wish at a later date to have the matter investigated," NSW Deputy Premier and Minister for Police Paul Toole said in an official press statement.
NSW Police Commissioner Karen Webb emphasised the new system will help victims of sexual violence retain control over their level of contact with police and what happens next, while also allowing the police to still gather information to help devise future strategies targeting offenders.
"For many victim-survivors, a police investigation and court process are the farthest thing from their mind and often they feel further traumatised through the process,” Commissioner Webb said.
"We understand and recognise that a successful prosecution is not always the desired outcome or the only measure of success. Victims can report via SARO anonymously without further contact from police, or they can elect to be identified and request that police follow up in certain circumstances."
In addition to English, the languages through which the system can be accessed include Arabic, Chinese, Greek, Hindi, Indonesian, Italian, Korean, Spanish, Tagalog and Vietnamese.
According to Our Watch — an organisation advocating for the prevention of violence against women and their children in Australia — migrant and refugee women are one of the groups more likely to experience sexual or gender-based violence. However, barriers to reporting include community views or stigmas around sexual violence, the police and mental health, as well as language barriers.
"Migrant and refugee women can be subjected to forms of violence that relate to their uncertain citizenship, where perpetrators threaten them with deportation or withhold access to passports, and can also be subject to violence from an extended range of perpetrators, including in-laws and siblings," Our Watch states on its website.
In a prior statement to Refinery29 Australia, a spokesperson from 1800 RESPECT (national sexual assault, family and domestic violence counselling line) said there are various reasons that CALD communities may be hesitant to report violence or assault.
"We know there can be complex considerations for people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, including experiencing forms of violence specific to a part of their culture or identity," they said. "They may also experience unique challenges in finding support, accessing translating services, or leaving a violent situation."
The addition of 11 new languages to SARO is positive, yet it must also be considered that westernised approaches to speaking about and addressing domestic and sexual violence are often not culturally sensitive, and therefore, greater involvement of community members is required to educate and train police on CALD community engagement.
"It is very important that there are culturally tailored approaches in assisting sexual assault victims in CALD communities as there are cultural nuances in each culture that create barriers for reporting and seeking justice, for example, reputational damage," says lawyer Molina Asthana.
Kittu Randhawa is the founder of the Indian (Sub-Cont) Crisis & Support Agency (ICSA), a NGO for the South Asian community in Australia. She agrees with Asthana, saying "there is a good deal of mistrust in the system and police in reporting sexual assault".
"For CALD communities, including South Asian communities, there are additional intersections to consider — a key one being attitudes of family and community towards the victim; as to be blamed or responsible for the assault."
While NSW Police states the information is stored safely and there's no pressure for victims to take part in a formal police interview once reporting, Randhawa says "there is still likely to be fear [amongst some CALD communities] that any report may lead to a situation that comes back to bite and people get to know of the disclosure."
"The key questions for anyone are: who gets the report, what will they do and how will it help me?"
Randhawa says the system needs to be adapted to the context of other cultures beyond translation.
"Tools like this need always to come in terms of proper communication — just language doesn’t cut it as many terms used in sexual assault exist in English but not other languages," she explains.
"This could cause confusion and lead to being out of context and the severity or impact missed for the reporter... it is vital that tools such as this that could be useful need a training video or resource that is in context — to aid the process of reporting. "
Asthana, who is also one of the key members of the recently-formed Multicultural Women's Alliance Against Family Violence, echoes this.
"It is good that the online resources will be available in 12 different languages," she explains, but "it is equally important that information about this tool is also made available to community and advocacy groups like the Multicultural Women’s Alliance Against Family Violence so that we can disseminate the information to vulnerable women from CALD communities."
In 2022, NSW Police received an average of 70 reports per month, up from 64 in 2021, but the hope is that this new reporting option will increase this figure in 2023. The SARO questionnaire can be accessed here.
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