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BLOG: ‘Women supporting women’ – the power of victim advocates

Image of two bracelets showing the International Women's Day logo.

This International Women’s Day, Baroness Newlove celebrates the vital role victim advocates play in empowering women to navigate the criminal justice system with confidence.

International Women’s Day is about celebrating women and their achievements. Highlighting a different topic each year, International Women’s Day has this year been given the theme ‘inspire inclusion’. To me, there are few who embody this theme better than victim advocates.

As Victims’ Commissioner, I regularly hear from women sharing their experiences — and frustrations — navigating the criminal justice system. While each account has its own unique set of challenges, victims repeatedly tell me how specialist victim support and advocacy have profoundly impacted on their experiences of the justice system for the better. For these victims, the support provided by victim advocates is invaluable.

We know navigating the criminal justice system can be challenging for victims, especially for those who have experienced high levels of trauma. Many can even find the system itself to be retraumatising. Victims can feel stranded and alone in a system that can feel complex and uncaring. This is where victim advocates step in.

Victim advocates are trained professionals advocating for and supporting victims through key milestones and ensuring that their voice is heard throughout the criminal justice process. Advocates provide victims with essential practical advice and emotional support at a time when they are attempting to find their way through the criminal justice system while recovering from a traumatic experience. Advocates are particularly prominent in sexual assault and domestic abuse cases – crimes disproportionately affecting women and girls.

I have long been a passionate supporter of victim advocates and the past two decades have witnessed a welcome and significant rise in their numbers in England and Wales. These advocates stand as a powerful example of how women supporting women can foster a sense of belonging, relevance, and empowerment for women – key elements for ‘inclusion’ – in the criminal justice system.

Research suggests that victim advocates are highly valued by those going through the criminal justice system. According to a recent study, victims who received specialist advocacy-based support were 49% less likely to withdraw from the criminal justice process than unsupported victims.

New research from my office, due to be published soon, suggests similar outcomes with both victims and advocates sharing powerful testimonials emphasising the importance of victim advocacy. The report shows the ways in which advocates frequently go above and beyond to help the women – and men – they support.

Focussing on the first-hand accounts of advocates and victims, it explores the transformative impact victim advocates can have on a victim’s experience of navigating the criminal justice system; in turn, leaving victims of crime with a greater feeling of empowerment and ability to claim their rights effectively.

The Victims’ Commissioner reflects on the value of specialised ‘by and for’ victim advocates in ensuring all victims, whatever their background, have a chance at justice.

The research also stresses the importance of being supported by someone with a similar cultural or community background. Both victims and advocates referenced how being from the same culture and having gone through similar experiences improved the victim-advocate relationship – and thereby the process as a whole. My report will further highlight the effectiveness of ‘by and for’ services in providing specialised support and addressing the unique challenges these women face within the system.

‘By and for’ services are designed and delivered by and for the users and communities they aim to serve, so that victims can receive support in an environment that is comfortable for them and by those who understand their specific needs.

As we celebrate the power of victim advocates, it’s also important we recognise the hurdles the sector faces. Provision remains limited and accessing these services can be challenging. ‘By and for’ services, in particular, face difficulties in terms of commissioning and funding. This is a missed opportunity to empower victims and improve justice outcomes. My report will set out a number of recommendations to tackle these issues.

For today, let’s champion the advocates empowering victims in their quest for justice – on this International Women’s Day and beyond. They help traumatised victims to access justice, they help them stay engaged with the criminal justice system and, most importantly, advocates give victims the support they need to rebuild their lives.

  • The Victims’ Commissioner’s report, Going above and beyond: Mapping the provision and impact of Victim Advocacy in the Criminal Justice System, is set to be published on the Victims’ Commissioner’s website on 14 March 2024.