Why Black Women Have A Hard Time Being Heard About Sexual Assault

Warning: This article contains descriptions of traumatic events, including rape, which some readers might find upsetting.
"After I was raped, I was left to my own devices," Alina*, 28, tells me. "I had gone through the typical process after reporting it, heading to the hospital to take a rape kit and given numerous police statements before my perpetrator was charged and a trial date was set. But then everything fell apart."
Alina says that a week before the trial was to commence, she had a phone call from her caseworker. "I was told that the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] no longer wanted to proceed with my case because they felt it wasn't a case they could win, mainly because the perpetrator had educational and career prospects," she continues. "They invited me to a meeting to explain their reasons in greater detail and a week later I was offered a £3,500 compensation via Victim Support. After that, I didn't hear anything more about it and I've had to continue living my life. I felt voiceless and powerless."
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I was told that the CPS no longer wanted to proceed with my case because they felt it wasn't a case they could win, mainly because the perpetrator had educational and career prospects.

Alina*
It's been almost a decade since Alina was raped and today she reflects on her ordeal. "People forget that this experience stays with you for the rest of your life," she says. "I was 19 when it happened and yet, a decade later, I'm still suffering," adding that she wishes she had more of a voice back then. "I wish I was able to voice how I really felt back then, and I also wish my parents, the police, the CPS and everyone else around me actually heard and listened to how I was and still am feeling. Most of all, I'm upset that I still haven't received justice."
In 2006, activist Tarana Burke created the #MeToo movement to raise awareness of women who had been abused. Eleven years later, the movement found global recognition after a viral tweet by actress Alyssa Milano, who had accused Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault. While the movement has empowered many other women to come forward, Black women are still left out of the narrative.
This year, Burke is part of a new initiative — called "We, As Ourselves" — whereby three prominent groups ('Me Too' International, the National Women's Law Center and the TIME'S UP Foundation) are focusing on those survivors who, Burke says, often feel that #MeToo has passed them by. In an interview, Burke said that when #MeToo exploded in 2017 following the Harvey Weinstein scandal, "Black women just kept saying, "Where are WE? Where ARE we? Where do we show up?"
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New figures from the Office for National Statistics estimate that one in 40 women aged between 16 and 24 in England and Wales experience rape or sexual assault by penetration, including attempts, each year. Starkly, adults of Black and Black British and mixed ethnicities were more likely to experience sexual assault than their white counterparts.
Djanomi Headley, a senior IDVA (independent domestic violence advisor) and operations manager at Sistah Space, a community-based nonprofit organisation supporting African heritage survivors of domestic and sexual abuse, says she has spoken with Black women who feel like they haven't been heard, or feel drained or don't see a point speaking about their experiences. "They are unaware of their rights and I find that in a lot of cases of the women I have spoken to, they don't understand they have been sexually assaulted or been in an abusive relationship."
Jasmine*, 25, was sexually assaulted when she was 19 but didn't understand what it was until she was older. "I went to visit a friend. We had done consensual sexual things before but I was still a virgin at this time," she tells me. "I went to visit him at university and stayed for the night. While we were there, he was trying to have sex with me. I said I was a virgin and I was drunk so I wasn't comfortable having sex then."

I didn't know it was rape until I was in my second year of university.

Jasmine*
She continues: "We went downstairs to hang out with his flatmates. When I went upstairs during the night to go to the toilet, he followed me and said, 'You know we're going to have sex right?' which I said no to. Later on that evening, we fooled around again but then he proceeded to put his penis inside of me without consent and I told him to stop but he didn't." Jasmine says that she didn't report it to the police. "I didn't know it was rape until I was in my second year of university," adding that she's now in therapy to fully heal from it.
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Djanomi acknowledges that police mistrust among Black communities is a factor in why many Black women don't report, adding that she sees how the police treat her when she attends the station on her clients' behalf. "If you have an institution that is there to police one culture, it makes sense that the other culture is left to their own devices," she tells me. "There are so many things that contribute to this Black lived experience, from poverty lines, the education system, the Windrush generation and immigration, and the average Black and mixed family encounter so many more pressures and obstacles that it's a given that prisons are made up of majority Black, in a society of minority Black."

If you have an institution that is there to police one culture, it makes sense that the other culture is left to their own devices.

Djanomi Headley
In the year ending March 2020, 58,856 cases of rape were recorded by police forces in England and Wales. These led to just 2,102 prosecutions, compared with 3,043 in the previous 12 months.
Andrea Simon, director of End Violence Against Women, notes that these stats are shocking and says that much more needs to be done to protect women and Black women. "There is a huge prosecution gap, it's almost as though rape is decriminalised. The stats are so low. They have dipped considerably from where they were 10 years ago," she tells me. "This was the focus of our judicial review and to try to understand [why the] CPS's approach to rape had changed and why there had been a collapse."
She continues: "Within those terrible figures, there is a story of Black and minoritised women, which are worse and there isn't any attention there. It's hard to establish a picture of how poorly the system is serving those women because that data is not collected. We need to clearly see what the gap in justice is."
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Simon adds that rape prosecutions turn on the credibility of the victim, with many rape survivors feeling as though they are the ones on trial. "It's their mobile phone that is looked at. If you've been a victim of burglary or theft, the police believe you. They don't start from the premise of trying to discredit your version of events when it involves trauma.

If you are a Black woman or minoritised, disabled, you present as somebody an upstanding white man with a partner may not be interested in. That will play into juries that [you] are not desirable to rape.

Andrea simon
"If you are a Black woman or minoritised, disabled, you present as somebody an upstanding white man with a partner may not be interested in. That will play into juries that [you] are not desirable to rape. They consider if she's not attractive enough to lead this person on, her behaviour, that women are disproportionately targeted for rape. [Perpetrators] will target women who will be less credible. They target vulnerability."
Sereena Al Noor, an activist from Birmingham who directed SILENCED, a documentary that explores why Black women don't seek justice, feels that Black women do not receive the support they should. Al Noor, who experienced multiple counts of abuse, says that as a Black woman you are taught to be strong, which can be problematic. "We are told to be strong and independent and talking about those issues is negative and it'll stop you from getting where you need to be. That might be not having a great career," she tells me, adding that this was why she fell into a deep depression. "When I talked about it, I would get shut down. This is part of our culture, this is how we do it. We only discuss these issues in secret."
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When I talked about it, I would get shut down. This is part of our culture, this is how we do it. We only discuss these issues in secret.

SEreena Al noor
Al Noor says that when she first reported her abuse, she didn't have a perception of justice, nor were her emotions and wellbeing ever considered. She adds that the women she interviewed for SILENCED said that the reason they didn't report or speak openly about their experiences was that they didn't want to embarrass their families. "I think it stems from slavery in a way, which has been modernised. Black Caribbean women are separate from their African brothers and sisters. What the slave masters did to us, it's not something you talk about, it was just something that happens and we counsel each other through it and hurry up and go back to the world, and the field to work," she adds. "People don't respect Black women, but Black women have been shaping themselves around other people, and they are censored, which makes us more vulnerable to abuse."
She concludes: "We need to raise awareness of this and it is our responsibility to bring these stories to light."
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, please call the National Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 2000 247. If you have experienced sexual violence of any kind, please visit Rape Crisis or call 0808 802 9999.
*Names have been changed to protect the interviewees' identities.

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