The Equality Act 2010 lists nine protected characteristics designed to protect people from discrimination. However, in a report published on 18 February 2021, The Independent Inquiry into child sexual abuse has reported that victims and survivors of child sexual abuse believe protected characteristics in fact made them more vulnerable to abuse and affected their ability to disclose the abuse and access support.
The Inquiry engaged with members of the victims and survivors forum to determine if they felt protected characteristics impacted or effected their experience of abuse. 85% of the forum members felt the protected characteristics affected their experience and 73% felt their protected characteristics had impacted their interaction with institutions.
Forum members indicated they felt children with mental health issues and disabilities were more vulnerable to abuse. Those with mental health conditions or disabilities felt they were marginalised by others and because of this isolation and wanting attention and affection it led them to being groomed and assaulted by adults. Forum members felt they were misunderstood and neither signs of disability or abuse were identified. One forum member recorded:
“I am diagnosed with Autism, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, and Auditory Processing Disorder. However these were not diagnosed until my adulthood which meant I went undiagnosed in childhood. I believe I was targeted because I had existing vulnerabilities and I was misdiagnosed and labelled as naughty, which meant that the underlying issues were not detected, and I was not protected. The symptoms of abuse were labelled as ‘she’s just a difficult child’ and thus went unnoticed as did my disabilities. I’m not surprised I was overlooked for these reasons, and the perpetrators got away with it.”
Others felt that that gender was a factor in making children more vulnerable. They felt cultural attitudes, such as, female bodies being viewed as a ‘temptation’ or a ‘commodity’ could result in girls either expecting or accepting abuse. One forum member said:
“Being a girl was definitely the main reason for being abused and at the young age is a very easy target. Being a girl was like having no identity so no reason to be respected.”
Members from strict religious communities also felt that being isolated and unable to associate with anyone outside of their community played a part in making them more vulnerable to abuse because they rebelled against their families.
The report indicates that protected characteristics played a further role when the victims came to report the abuse; impacting negatively on their ability, not only, to report the abuse but also to access to support. Forum members reported being dismissed by institutions because of mental health or disability and were treated as being unreliable. One victim reported the police labelling her ‘mental’ because she had chronic posttraumatic stress disorder. Male victims also felt that authorities simply considered they should ‘man up’ and stereotypes such as ‘boys don’t cry’ left them feeling ashamed and unable to fully understand that they had been sexually abused. Others reported feeling that their sexual orientation prevented them from seeking help for fear of discrimination.
Victims reporting to the Inquiry felt there was unconscious bias towards them. Whilst some reported having positive experiences when reporting their abuse and accessing support many felt the protected characteristics significantly impacted their experience and this was reported from both male and female victims as well as victims from ethnic minorities and religious groups.
Religion was also felt to leave victims at an increased vulnerability and prohibited their ability to report. Those in the Jehovah’s Witness community were discouraged from engaging with authorities, such as the police, and were told elders would prefer them to stay silent. Children from ethnic minorities understood that being the victim of abuse damaged the honour of the family and led them to stay silent: One victim said:
“I’m from an Arab Muslim family and the abuse took place at home (my biological father). The stigma, taboo and shame involved in exposing my family was unbearable due to my upbringing. In my home country if a girl has any sexual contact prior to marriage it is considered acceptable to kill her to avoid bringing shame on the family.”
Victims equally felt protected characteristics made seeking help more difficult and there was a lack of understanding. Those with complex mental health needs found they were excluded from statutory services and had to pay privately to access support.
In current times the spotlight is on protecting diversity and eliminating blatant discrimination, but it is clear from this survey that more work is needed to eradicate unconscious bias and provide victims and survivors with impartial support when reporting abuse.