The World Health Organisation has said sexual violence against women tends to increase during every type of emergency, including epidemics. Stress, the disruption of social and protective networks, financial strife, normative silencing and decreased access to services can exacerbate the problem.
Help executive director Kathryn McPhillips said they've not seen a spike in sexual violence cases possibly because of fewer connnections formed in bars, clubs, and pubs. But any assaults after lockdown breaches might not have been disclosed for some time.
"People might expect to be seen as a traitor if they disclose now, and be scared of the repercussions of this, so this would act to keep them silent about sexual assault."
Same goes for sexual misconduct at home, where McPhillips expects delayed disclosures, saying there's nothing to suggest abuse may have decreased through the lockdown.
Harrowing statistics for decades
The issue is that sexual violence figures - namely under-reporting - haven't changed since the 1980s. The NZ Crime Survey released their findings this month, showing 94 per cent of sexual assaults hadn't been reported to the police - a direct contrast to the 94 per cent of vehicle theft reports. A third of adults experienced sexual violence at some point in their lives, and women were three times more likely to experience sexual violence than men.
Reasons for under-reporting are multi-faceted and riddled with systemic structural problems. Forty-eight per cent of people in the NZ Crime Survey didn't report crime to police because the crime was seen as "too trivial/no loss or damage/not worth reporting", and 27 per cent of people didn't report because "police couldn't have done anything", for example.
On a personal note, I was one of these statistics earlier in my career. Despite my relatively privileged position, socio-economic status, union membership and knowledge of the law, it took me four months to come to terms with the situation, let alone having the incentive to do something about it.
Few colleagues or my community supported or believed me; police and lawyers told me it wasn't "worth going through the system"; and I was demoted. Were there long-term repercussions? Absolutely.
Financial woes make things worse
The survey, which involves 8000 people over the age of 15 every year, interestingly also revealed a link between victimisation and socio-economic conditions. Those with disabilities or physiological issues were one and a half times more likely than the average adult to be a victim of crime, and there was a higher level of victimisation for those in financial strife, in single-parent households, living in more deprived areas, and those facing unemployment. Just 2 per cent of victims experienced 33 per cent of crime, for example.
So with a global recession looming, the situation may get worse. And as the world tries to come to grips with what has happened, I fear gender violence may go under the radar, which arguably it already does.
In documents released to the Herald relating to the gender analysis of government Covid-19 initiatives, a Ministry for Women briefing said it was clear that a gender lens is "nice to have" but not prioritised during times of crisis, as evidenced by the emphasis on infrastructure for example.
The minimisation of gendered perspectives is a systemic issue, which requires a long-term reframing of what values and principles are imperative to include in policy decisions and in New Zealand society in general, it read.
"A gendered policy response to a crisis situation, taking into account intersecting forms of discrimination, will avoid the reinforcement of existing inequalities and ensure that policy making during the time of crisis is of higher quality and of greater relevance to societal inequalities."
Wherefore art thou law changes?
The Sexual Violence Legislation Bill submissions closed in January - and is still at the select committee stage. And Covid-19 probably hasn't helped to speed up the process.
The bill aims to reduce the retraumatisation that victims of sexual violence may experience when attending court and giving evidence, by protecting complainants from irrelevant and excessive questioning; providing the opportunity to give evidence in alternative ways; and requiring judges to intervene when questioning is inappropriate, for example.
The bill doesn't address the issue of consent, however, whereas Canada has paved the way insofar as consent can only be obtained if a person explicitly says or does something to agree to the activity.
The Law Foundation also released research into the Sexual Violence Courts pilot this year, where it was found the pilot had yet to have a significant impact on the distress of young witnesses.
The study also looked at whether there was a reduction of traumatisation as a result of pre-trial delays. The average time between the complaint and trial for pilot courts was 13.2 months, and 16.3 months for non-pilot courts. There were also few differences between courts in the complex language used.
"Overall there appears to have been little change in the experience of young people and their caregivers in their participation in the courts. Nor has there been significant change in the conduct of lawyers in questioning young witnesses, either in comparison with similar studies over the last two decades, or between pilot and other courts," the study read.
Where to from here?
There's been little discussion around whether the burden of proof should be changed - Labour briefly proposed the idea in 2015 but nothing came from it - or whether juries should be scrapped altogether.
If we were to employ a defamation law framework, where you're compelled (and have to pay) to prove you didn't defame someone - perhaps people might have more of an incentive to obtain consent. Law and justice changes might be a top-down approach, but it paves the way for cultural change, in my view.
Will changing the system lead to a floodgate of vexatious false claims? Evidence suggests this is simply not true. US figures dating back to 2010 suggest only 2-10 per cent of reported rape allegations are false. If we apply this to a New Zealand context, that's 2-10 per cent of the 6 per cent of people who report misconduct - we're talking a rate of 0.12-0.6 per cent of all sexual misconduct.
What's more, the fallacy of false claims minimises women's experiences, and perpetuates a vicious cycle so women don't come forward. Why is it that false reporting around grievous bodily harm is not as equally in the public's consciousness, for example?
If anything, this narrative is reflective of how we value women. That is, women are not of the same value as men on a structural level.