22 Apr 2024

Breaking barriers on sexual assault figures

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 22 April 2024

Two #MeToo campaigners are about to introduce a new reporting system for sexual assault survivors they hope will turn around shocking figures around this crime.

Zoe Lawton (left) and Alison Mau want to change the shockingly low statistics on reported sexual abuse.

Zoe Lawton (left) and Alison Mau want to change the shockingly low statistics on reported sexual abuse. Photo: Alexia Russell/The Detail

Alison Mau had two choices when she was laid off from Stuff - carry on in journalism but not her specialist #MeToo reporting or quit the industry and try to make a meaningful difference in that area.

She chose the latter and teamed up with another high-profile campaigner, barrister Zoe Lawton, to set up the charity Tika (which means justice and fairness) to tackle the persistently low rates of sexual assault reporting in Aotearoa. 

Statistics show it is one of our most under-reported crimes at just eight percent of all cases. Lawton and Mau believe Tika, which combines high tech and legal expertise, could be the circuit-breaker needed to encourage more survivors to come forward and for the perpetrators to be brought to justice. 

Tika's platform will allow victims or survivors to register simply and securely online, and have the software search the database for a "match" on anyone who has been harmed by the same perpetrator. They'll then be able to take group action with the help of Tika's specialist lawyers, for free.
Lawton, who set up the #MeToo blog to expose bad behaviour in the law profession in 2018, says they both thought their work in raising awareness around the prevalence of sexual harm in the workplace and other environments would lead to an increase in reporting rates.

"Five, six years later those reporting rates are incredibly low," Lawton tells The Detail.

"We were naive," says Mau. "We were stunned to learn that from the latest figures and we thought, why are people not reporting? 

"We know now that there are barriers in the way of survivors. With Tika we're trying to set up a way of pulling down those barriers."

People don't report because they feel isolated and alone; are unsure whether what happened to them is against the law; and are reluctant to negotiate the legal system alone, says Mau. 

"We know many perpetrators harm more than one person and without accountability, develop a pattern of behaviour over time, creating a chain of harm. Tika will seek to hold those serial perpetrators accountable, and the database itself will act as a deterrent," she says.

Tika is still some months away from launch date. Mau admits it is a difficult time to set up a charity and ask people to donate when the economy is sluggish and cost of living is high. They are also still working on securing enough support from the legal profession that they can offer free legal services, as well as enough funding to ensure the service will be sustainable. 

Once it is up and running victims or survivors will be able to log their details and those of the perpetrator. Mau says the online form will be easy to use and the system is set up to be highly secure to protect people's privacy. The match of the perpetrator to other victims could happen instantly or could take some months. Every person who registers will be offered psychological support.    

The pair are also working with the police to enable people whose case has not been taken forward the first time to have another chance to proceed if they are matched with others in Tika's system.

Lawton says fears that the project will lead to a witch hunt or false reporting are overblown.

"Definitely not the case, because legally and from an information storage point of view all the clients that register with us that match are all kept in separate lines, they are not identified to each other, they're not tainting each other's evidence, they're not colluding," she says.

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