Sexual violence is different from most other offending behaviours because it occurs in an intimate context, because of its dynamics and specific trauma, and because it often happens between people who are acquainted. In most cases there will be some form of past, perhaps present and even future relationship between the victim and the offender. The difficulty of reimagining a safer and positive future relationship is often one of the primary concerns of victims and others indirectly affected by the sexual harm. Very often the perceived ‘safe’ approach to ‘manage’ this tension is to separate the parties and remove the potential for ongoing contact. However, frequently this is not sustainable, or even desirable, especially for the victim. Additional programmes may be provided to support the victim to change the perception of oneself after the crime and to discourage the offender from committing further violence and harm.
Sexual assault and harm involve a sexual act directed at someone who does not consent. They include a range of non-consensual or coercive sexual behaviours, and broadly include: rape, sexual abuse, sexual acts with a child, molestation, exposure offences, and an attempt or threat to do any of the former. Sexual violence is a complex issue because of the intimate nature of the act, the fact it often occurs within a relational context and it strengthens socially constructed gendered discourses and dynamics. The criminal justice system fails to address victims’ needs but also to take into consideration the overall experience of the parties involved (e.g. when the offender experienced victimisation in an earlier stage in life). Also, a very low percentage of cases of sexual violence reach the criminal justice system (e.g. in cases of intrafamilial violence victims prefer to keep private about the situation), showing a need to identify a different way to undo the injustice and repair the harm.
Restorative justice is an approach of addressing harm or the risk of harm through engaging all those affected in coming to a common understanding and agreement on how the harm or wrongdoing can be repaired and justice achieved.
Restorative justice is an approach oriented towards repairing, as far as possible, the harm caused by crime, conflict or other transgressions. A core element of restorative justice is the participation of the victim, the offender and possibly other parties, such as the community, to voluntarily come together with the help of a facilitator to address the harm and its consequences. The most common processes are victim-offender mediation or conferencing, which take place as direct face-to-face encounters (after a well developed preparation) or indirect encounters (e.g. via video calls or messages). What’s unique about restorative justice is that it creates a safe space where the parties are empowered and responsible for the consequences of the act that brought them together.
The benefits of restorative justice in sexual violence cases are in general not very different from restorative justice in other cases: participation, possibility to express one’s experience and story and being heard, and plan a reparation for the harm caused or suffered.
Restorative justice offers victims the chance to reclaim their voice, not as a victim but as a survivor. Victims often speak of their need to re-narrate their life stories as 'survivors' of sexual violence rather than ‘rape victims’. Victims can challenge the perception that their lives have been ruined: the change in the self-narrative is one of the primary benefits mentioned in the aftermath of a restorative justice encounter. Often victims wish to meet the perpetrator of the harm that they have suffered so that they can have their questions answered: “why did you do it?” “why did you choose me?” “will you do this again to me or someone else?” “how much remorse do you feel for the suffering that you caused me?” an encounter with the perpetrator can support recovery and enable victims to move on with their lives.
Restorative justice interventions can support the rehabilitation of sex offenders. They encourage a genuine acceptance of accountability, sincere expression of remorse, motivation to participate in therapeutic treatment and a personal journey or transformation. Restorative justice can support desistance from crime and is congruent with the focus of many intervention approaches with sex offenders.
Restorative justice in sexual violence cases has a profound transformative effect on the experience of shame for victims, offenders and their families, although these experiences are obviously different. Properly applied, it enables the articulation of the intense sense of shame in a rehabilitative and non-stigmatising manner which can be part of a process of personal transformation.
Evidence suggests that a safe restorative justice practice is contingent on particular conditions that apply to all participants, the framework/setting and the mediators/facilitators. These conditions are:
- Assessment of the participants (suitability versus eligibility);
- Risk assessment;
- Thorough preparation;
- Interagency cooperation between experts on sexual offending, victimisation and treatment;
- Flexibility and sufficient allocated time;
- Mediators/ facilitators with knowledge of the power and control dynamics of sexual violence and of the effects of trauma, with a special training in facilitating a restorative justice encounter in these complex cases.
- Victim safety - There are concerns that the informal nature of restorative justice compared to the more formal criminal justice processes may place victims at risk of re-victimisation and that unchallenged power imbalances may be perpetuated and patterns of abuse may be reinforced.
- Manipulation of the process by offenders - It has been contended that offenders may use the restorative justice process to minimise or diminish their responsibility for the offence or indeed trivialise the abuse or shift the blame to the victim.
- Pressure on victims - Some victims may not be effective self-advocates, especially they have particular vulnerabilities or are minors, and their interests may be minimised or marginalised, putting victims under pressure to accept certain outcomes (e.g. an apology, even if it is felt to be insincere), to offer forgiveness, or even to accept an offender back into the home.
- Conflicting loyalties - In some forms of intra-familial sexual violence, parents, siblings and other family members and friends may have unclear and conflicting loyalties, resulting in victims being vulnerable to manipulation.
- Public interest not served – Restorative justice (especially if used as diversion) has been positioned as being incompatible with the long-standing goal of women’s rights activists to move violence against women from the private to the public sphere and establish it as a public crime.
- Power imbalances - Power imbalance is often mentioned as one reason for not doing restorative justice in cases of sexual violence, as in such cases one person (the offender) has demonstrated absolute power over another (the victim-survivor).
- Bolitho, J. & K. Freeman (2016). The use and effectiveness of restorative justice in criminal justice systems following child sexual abuse or comparable harms. Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
- Centre for Innovative Justice (2014). Innovative justice responses to sexual offending – pathways to better outcomes for victims, offenders and the community.
- Coker, D. (2018). Restorative responses to campus sexual harm: promising practices and challenges. The International Journal of Restorative Justice, p. 385-398. ⎯ Community Legal Centres NSW (2019). Restorative justice after sexual assault. Retrievable on: https://www.clcnsw.org.au/restorative-justice-after-sexual-assault
- Daly, K. (2011). Conventional and innovative justice responses to sexual violence. Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault, 12, 1-35. ⎯ Hudson, B. (2000). Restorative justice and gendered violence: Diversion or effective justice? British Journal of Criminology 42(3), 616-34.
- Keenan, M., Zinsstag, E. & O'Nolan, C. (2016). Sexual violence and restorative practices in Belgium, Ireland and Norway: a thematic analysis of country variations. Restorative Justice: An International Journal. 4(1). 86-114.
- McGlynn, C., Westmarland, N. & Godden, N. (2012). ‘I just wanted him to hear me’: sexual violence and the possibilities of restorative justice. Journal of Law and Society, 39(2), 213-240.
- Mercer, V., Sten Madsen, K., Keenan, M., & Zinsstag, E. (2015). Sexual violence and restorative justice: A practice guide. KU Leuven Institute of Criminology, Belgium.
- Restorative Justice Council (2016). Restorative justice and sexual harm. Retrievable on: https://restorativejustice.org.uk/restorative-justice-and-sexual-harm 4
- Pali, B. & Sten Madsen, K. (2011). Dangerous liaisons? A feminist and restorative approach to sexual assault. Temida, 14(1) 49-65.
- Walgrave, L., Ward, T. & Zinsstag, E. (2019), When restorative justice meets the Good Lives Model: Contributing to a criminology of trust. European Journal of Criminology.
- Zinsstag, E. & Keenan, M. (eds.) (2017). Sexual violence and restorative justice: legal, social and therapeutical dimensions. London: Routledge.
- Keenan, M. & Zinsstag, E. (forthcoming 2020). Working title: When victims want to meet offenders: An international study on restorative practices for sexual violence. Oxford University Press
8 March 2022 - The theme for International Women’s Day 2022 is “Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow”, recognising the contribution of women and girls around the world, who are leading the charge on climate change adaptation, mitigation, and response, to build a more sustainable future for all.
The Working Group on Gender-Based Violence put together a series of video materials and publications for better understanding the potential and challenges of restorative justice in cases of gender-based violence such as sexual violence, domestic abuse, LGBTQ+ hate crime, among others.
- The Working Group plans to publish a “Guide from survivors to survivors” on sexual violence and an academic article on domestic violence. (still forthcoming)
- If you attended the EFRJ international conference (Sassari, 23-25 June 2022) you were able to meet in person not only the members of this Working Group but also the protagonists of the film “The Meeting”, Ailbhe Griffith and Marie Keenan, in a plenary at the Teatro Verdi of Sassari, open to the wider public.
- CJPE Summer Course in 2022 in Barcelona focused on Responses to Sexual Violence, Barcelona. more information & the booklet: https://www.euforumrj.org/en/cjpe-summer-course-responses-sexual-violence-2022
Restorative justice responses to sexual violence - How to enable safe and sensitive practice
Recording of the webinar organised by the European Forum for Restorative Justice in the cooperation framework of the Criminal Justice Platform Europe, held by Vincent Mercer (Senior Mediator, Aim Project, UK) and Kristel Buntinx (Senior Mediator, Moderator, Belgium) on 9 July 2020 - available here
On May 2021, the EFRJ Working Group on Gender Based Violence participated in the EC open consultation on “Combating gender-based violence – protecting victims and punishing offenders” (adoption foreseen fourth quarter 2021). The WG submitted a position paper mainly concerning RJ and the Istanbul Convention.
Here the link to the EFRJ position paper.
Presented by Professors Kieran McCartan and Linda Millington from the United Kingdom, and Professor Kasia Uzieblo from Belgium, this Criminal Justice Platform Europe (CJPE)-organised webinar presented the state of play regarding management and reintegration in the community of persons convicted of a sexual offence.
Marie Keenan, and Ailbhe Griffith, are the protagonists of the film “The Meeting” directed by Alan Gilsenan. The film is based on a real restorative justice meeting which took place between Ailbhe and the man who, nine years earlier, subjected her to a horrific sexual assault.
In occasion of the REstART 2020 Festival week, we hosted a virtual discussion with Marie, Ailbhe and Alan: the recordings are available here.
Made available during the REstART week, the video at the link below features a thirty minute reading of an extract from Geoff Power’s potent new play Stronger.
Based on true events, Stronger tells the gripping story of Jan, a teacher raped by her student. As she journeys through the legal system her life is in danger of falling apart but, through restorative justice, Jan finds the strength to meet with her attacker and a process of healing begins.
The play reading is followed by a webinar, moderated by the EFRJ chair Tim Chapman, featuring panelists from the worlds of Irish politics and criminal justice along with writer, Geoff Power.
"A Conversation" is a film based on an Australian theatre performance telling the stories of two families who met in the presence of a facilitator, the parents of a young woman who was raped and murdered and the family of the offender. The play has been performed and filmed by the Norwegian group "No Theatre" on the occasion of the international Restorative Justice Week 2017.
During REstART, on 2 December 2020, we organised a virtual talk with John McDonald, the real mediator who worked closely with the actor/s playing that role in the original Australian play, and Siw Risøy, the coordinator of the Norwegian "No Theatre" group. The discussion was facilitated by Espen Marius Foss, a senior mediator from Norway and is available here.
Together with several partners (Universitat de Barcelona , Universitat de Girona, Çavaria vzw, Stichtings Avans , Universita degli Studi di Brescia, Resursen Tsentsar Bilitis , Uniwersytet Wroklawski , European Forum of Restorative Justice) we have collaborated on a project aimed at contributingto the reparation of anti-LGBT hate crimes, by guaranteeing the victim’s rights, through the promotion of restorative justice (RJ) in the EU.
The final publications from this project and a video-discussion are available here.
Led by the Leuven Institute of Criminology and together with University College Dublin, INTERVICT – University of Tilburg, Max Planck Institute, AIM Project, University of Southern Denmark, University Hospital of Trondheim - we have collaborated on a project aimed at examining Restorative Justice in the particular context of sexual trauma and violence.
The project strove at establishing the empirical realities of restorative justice approaches in cases of sexual crime and to see how they could be developed adequately in the future.
The Practice Guide that resulted from this project is available here.