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Only one in six women report serious sexual assault, ONS figures show

The new figures come as tensions rise across the UK at alarming levels of violence, sexual assault and harassment against women and girls.
A woman lays flowers at a vigil for Sarah Everard in Sheffield. Tim Dennell/Flickr

Only one in six women who were subject to a serious sexual assault reported it to the police, according to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics.

There were almost four times as many female victims as there were male, according to statistics to the year ending March 2020, and men were more likely to report the crimes than women. Overall, the number of crimes had fallen on the previous year.

“These figures show the scale of sexual violence that women face,” said Sarah Jones MP, Labour’s Shadow Policing and Fire Minister, in a statement. “It’s unacceptable that so few victims feel able to come forward and so many perpetrators are escaping justice.”

Violence against women and girls has drawn protests and strong words in Parliament in recent weeks after Sarah Everard, a 33-year-old marketing executive living in London, vanished while walking home from a friend’s house on the evening of March 3. A serving Metropolitan Police officer has been charged with her kidnap and murder, although he was not on duty at the time of her disappearance.

Dozens of marches were organised to protest violence against women and girls under the banner Reclaim These Streets but were cancelled after police refused to rule out fines for organisers and attendees for breaking coronavirus restrictions.

The Metropolitan Police has been accused of institutional misogyny after footage of heavy-handed arrests at vigils for Ms Everard drew condemnation from around the world and across the political spectrum.

Detailing the nature of the crimes reported, Helen Ross from the ONS Centre for Crime and Justice said: “Our latest findings from the crime survey showed a decrease in the prevalence of sexual assault in the year ending March 2020, though it should be noted that the current estimate is similar to levels seen over much of the last 15 years. 

“The drop was driven by reductions in indecent exposure or unwanted sexual touching however there was no change in the prevalence of rape or assault by penetration.”

The Crime Survey for England and Wales showed there were 773,000 adults aged 16 to 74 years who were victims of sexual assault — including attempts — between March 2019 and March 2020. Some 618,000 victims were recorded as female compared to 155,000 as male.

The number of offences recorded by the police remains “well below” the number of victims estimated by the survey, said Ross, “with fewer than one in six victims of rape or assault by penetration reporting the crime to the police”.

Jones continued: “This has to be the time for change. The Government must act urgently to restore victims’ faith in the justice system.

“Labour has set out a range of tough and effective measures that could be implemented without delay, like taking action on stalking and street harassment, as well as harsher penalties for rape and domestic murders, and better support for victims.”

The Home Office has been approached for comment.

Sarah Davidge, research and evaluation manager at domestic violence charity Women’s Aid said called for “a transformation in the response to all forms of violence against women to ensure every survivor can access the safety and support they need”.

“The pandemic has shone a light on the fact that women are not safe at home, and – as the shocking murder of Sarah Everard has shown us – they are not safe in public either. Violence against women and girls is a crisis of global proportions, and it is driven by women’s inequality in society.””