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Sexual Violence: Insights From Leading UK Influencer

“Sadly, the criminal justice system is failing to address sexual violence and abuse. There are not enough survivors receiving anything near criminal justice." Katie Russell, CEO and co-founder of Support After Rape and Sexual Violence Leeds (SARSVL), takes us through the challenges she faces in supporting victims and how she has managed to become one of the country’s leading voices on sexual violence.

Ever since the murder of Sarah Everard in March 2021, people have increasingly been promoting safety for women. Shocking data revealed by YouGov shows that 43% of women in the UK have suffered from unwelcome touching or groping, and 28% of women have experienced indecent exposure in public.

Many victims have come to the SARSVL charity, where Russell initially worked as a trustee and director, for urgent help and support. SARSVL is a feminist organisation that supports women in need throughout Leeds and is a trans-inclusive organisation. It provides a crucial service as nearly half the women who seek help are adult survivors of child sexual abuse. Last year, the organisation helped around 600 individuals. Yet, according to Russel, this figure is less than usual due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Altogether, SARSVL has helped thousands of women and girls after almost 14 years of operations.

Russell returned to SARSVL in September 2021 and began the newly created full-time job of CEO. An expert in sexual assault and abuse against women, she has over 17 years of diverse experience working within the Rape Crisis movement and wider voluntary and community sector. Through her daily job, Russell strives to live out her activism, creativity, and intersectional feminist values. This is manifested in her desire for social justice and belief that “we live in a fundamentally inequitable world with the white supremacy capitalist patriarchy and a diseased system”. Russell also appeared on TEDx in 2020 as a guest speaker at the University of York, where she gave a speech about sexual consent.

“I’ve waived throughout my life. Some of it comes with age and personal experience between thinking I wanted to smash that system and change it completely. Or, sometimes my ambitions are more modest but potentially more realistic and achievable in trying to be the change effectively. You know that Gandhi quote, which is so overused, about being the change that you want to see in the world,” she chuckles.

Born and raised in a Christian family where her father worked for the Royal Navy, Russell and her siblings were always encouraged to pursue what they believed in and to develop their own opinions. While Russell’s older sister is a teacher, one of her younger siblings is an actress working in comedy. Each has been contributing great values to society and helping many people in different ways.

“My parents were Methodists growing up and actually met each other at a Methodist Church in Leeds where they eventually got married. Methodism has a really strong code of believing in social justice and welfare,” Russell says in a firm voice. “Although now I don’t identify as a Christian at all, and I would say I’m an atheist, I have no doubt that it has influenced my values and motivation.”

Motivation is extremely important when working in the charity sector, as it contains a great number of challenges for one to deal with, especially in a CEO position like Russell’s. The biggest problem of all is how to keep the charity running when “there is never enough money”. Since the nature of the organisation is non-profit, a huge part of her career has been making the case to others for funding, whether donated by the general public or private funders. The donations are gratefully received; however, it is also discouraging because short-term contracts with a lack of job security mean that funds can be discontinued at any time.

Therefore, among the recommendations, Russell emphasises the necessity to ensure that non-profit charities are properly and sustainably funded so they may continue to provide specialist advocacy and emotional support to victims. From the feedback of those who have used the services, this could make all the difference in terms of making sure that survivors stay in the criminal justice proceedings while feeling less distressed by the process.

In March 2022, the College of Policing in the UK published a report regarding interventions to reduce violence against women and girls. According to the publication, there is a systematic review of evidence on a number of physical environment measures that could be used to help protect women and girls in public spaces, at a more tactical level. In general, it has been discovered that better street lighting lowers crime. Comparing places with and without increased street lighting, violent and property crime in well-lit spaces decreased by an average of 21%. Additionally, CCTV is more effective when utilised in conjunction with complementary security measures, such as when live footage is actively monitored and when there is extensive camera coverage.

One victim, who was sexually assaulted by a friend of four years, shares the experience of reaching out for help from the organisation: “The organisation SARSVL was the one I was hooked up with after my assault. They assigned me a support worker and, as I was trying to get a prosecution going, they would act on my behalf sometimes and ask questions that I was too scared to ask. They’ve been such a big role to me in the aftermath of my assault.”

Despite the hardships Russell faces in her work, she says that the great things coming to her from the job outweigh all the downsides and she has been living a “very happy life”. “When I was a kid, I imagined that I would be very rich, maybe because I was a child of the ‘80s. Everybody was very materialistic during the 1980s and 1990s with flashy cars, technology and designer clothes. I thought being rich was successful enough,” she laughs. But now, she finds joy in keep helping people and making a positive difference each day, even if it is just for one life in one tiny way. Turning 41 this year, Russell is enjoying her time with her big family, her siblings, nieces and nephews. For her, that is the true definition of success.


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