The need to address sexual violence

Grace Millane was in New Zealand as part of her overseas holiday. Photo: supplied
Grace Millane was in New Zealand as part of her overseas holiday. Photo: supplied
Two announcements this month about sexual violence issues should serve as continued reminders of change needed urgently.

All should reflect on what have been described as "overdue" changes to the trial of rape cases, as well as a milestone analysis that shows only 6% of sexual violence cases reported to police end in jail.

The changes to how rape cases are tried come under a raft of reforms designed to protect victims from being unfairly treated or retraumatised.

Part of the Sexual Violence Legislation Bill - which had its first reading in Parliament earlier this month and is expected to become law early next year - they mean a woman's sexual history or how she dresses will be out of bounds in future court cases.

Such information, called "rape myths" by survivor advocacy groups, will only be admissible in a court if the judge deems it should be, and if not doing so would impede justice.

The Bill will also allow alternative ways to give evidence - such as via video link or in a cleared courtroom, to shield complainants from the accused or supporters - and require a judge to intervene in inappropriate lines of questioning, such as ones that are improper, unfair, misleading or needlessly repetitive.

The changes are designed to maintain fair trial rights while improving the court experience, which complainants repeatedly describe as retraumatising and hostile, and say often deter victims from reporting sexual violence.

The low rates of reporting of sexual violence have been confirmed in a landmark study commissioned by the Under-Secretary for Justice, Jan Logie.

In the first large-scale research of its kind in New Zealand, the Government has released an analysis of 23,739 cases of reported sexual violence victimisations from 2014 to 2018.

It shows less than a third of sexual violence cases reported to police are making it to court, and only about a 10th are ending in convictions. Just 6% are leading to imprisonment.

It also found that, because of changes to police practices, the number of victimisations being not classed as crimes by officers had fallen from 17% of reported cases in 2014 to 2% in the past year.

Logie said that figure was a "slither of good news" but there was still a long way to go and the Government would be "relentless" in turning the figures around.

Wellington Women Lawyers' Association convener Steph Dyhrberg said the general public was "remarkably ill-informed" about the realities of sexual violence and how survivors experienced it and behaved.

"Those assumptions and prejudices and misinformation, jurors take into the courtroom and jury room."

The comments come amid two high-profile cases that have attracted intense scrutiny.

The killer of Grace Millane and alleged killer of Amber-Rose Rush did not sit accused of sexually assaulting them, but the cases are a reminder of another sad statistic - that women continue to be more likely to be victims of violent crime than men.

The trial of Ms Millane, a young British tourist, has attracted particular international attention.

It also details the sexual history of Ms Millane, her killer claiming she died as a result of sexual misadventure.

The argument of rough sex was one increasingly being used as part of a defence plea, columnist Barbara Ellen - used by the defence in Ms Millane's case - wrote in the Guardian this month.

But rough sex was "supposed to be about sex, not death", Ellen said.

As Ms Millane's family endure the indignity of listening to details of their daughter's death and sexual history, all should feel the weight of a society that has seen a young woman die and be portrayed in such circumstances.

Comments

'Rough sex' is a male power trip.

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