By Carolyn Kossow

In light of recent feminist movements #MeToo and #TimesUp demonstrating the widespread prevalence of sexual harassment and violence, there is a global spotlight on survivors of sexual violence now more than ever.

In the UK alone, between 2017-2018, Rape Crisis affirms that a stunning 1 in 5 women reported experiencing sexual violence or harassment in their lifetime.

It is essential to note that sexual violence and harassment are some of the most underreported crimes due to a culture of victim-blaming, shame, and disbelief under patriarchal frameworks. Therefore we can expect that there are even more survivors of this abuse out there, simply unrepresented in the already staggering statistics.

This large demographic of survivors—mostly women, trans and nonbinary folks, and some men—face even further difficulties in the wake of Brexit. One potential consequence of leaving the EU is that there may be funding cuts to social justice initiatives. Studies have shown that Brexit’s funding cuts will disproportionately affect women and, specifically, survivors of sexual violence who may then face difficulties accessing their right to healthcare.

Healthcare for Survivors

Access to comprehensive healthcare should not be up for debate or put on the chopping block in Brexit negotiations; healthcare is after all a fundamental human right.

While the UK’s national healthcare system is accessible for the majority of UK residents, it still has major pitfalls in which those most in need of healthcare and support often fall through the cracks of the system.

For many survivors of sexual violence, accessing healthcare services can be a traumatizing experience. In her research, Pavan Amara (founder of My Body Back Project) reveals the lack of trauma-sensitivity training within the NHS. Amara’s research demonstrates how many survivors feel triggered or traumatized by routine sexual and reproductive health procedures (i.e. cervical screening, or smear test) simply because their healthcare provider was not trained to know how to take extra precautions when caring for a survivor. Amara notes that the fear of receiving healthcare that is not trauma-sensitive often leads survivors to avoid healthcare altogether (including the critical sexual and reproductive tests and examinations one ought to receive after an assault).

In response to this phenomenon, Amara took it upon herself to work with the NHS and kickstart My Body Back Project, a charity that provides trauma-sensitive reproductive, sexual health, and maternity clinics for survivors across the UK. With movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp growing in numbers, it is crucial now more than ever for the work of charities like My Body Back Project to continue.

Brexit and Survivors

In the UK today, survivors are often forced to rely on charities for support in their quest for trauma-sensitive care. It is predicted that post-Brexit, important funds needed for these organisations to continue to provide comprehensive healthcare to survivors will be slashed even further.

Despite hopes of additional money for the NHS post-Brexit, a predicted downturn in the UK’s GDP will likely result in further cuts to government spending on services.

In a recent report on Brexit and gender equality Sam Smethers, CEO of the Fawcett Society, stated that “We risk turning the clock back on gender equality as a result of Brexit,” and highlighted Brexit’s disproportionate impact on women’s health issues and economic security.

Moving Forward

What can be done? In order to offset any potential funding cuts due to Brexit, it is crucial that the UK budget match and maintain current funding levels from the EU that specifically support social justice charities.

Without this matched (or, ideally, increased) funding, survivors will face further hardship and difficulty in accessing the care they need.

It is also necessary to increase support for charities doing the hard work to make up for said injustices and inequalities. A few charities to look out for that are doing great work in this field include My Body Back Project, LondonBlack Women’s Project, the Justice and Equality Fund, Women’s Aid, RapeCrisis, and Rights of Women (who recently funded a free, confidential helpline by female lawyers offering legal advice to women experiencing sexual harassment).

While we need to commend and support the hard work of charities, we must also recognize that it is not just up to civil society to fill in the gaps of government services. The government has a responsibility to ensure everyone can access healthcare, including survivors of sexual violence.

Healthcare is a human right. It is urgent, now than more than ever, to ensure that services provided uphold this right.

Carolyn Kossow is a graduate student receiving her Master’s degree in Gender at the London School of Economics and Political Science

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