A new study by three United Nations (UN) agencies of rape and sexual assault cases in Thailand and Vietnam, has found significant societal, legal and institutional practices that prevent victims from getting redress.
Attrition rate is high at the initial stage, the study found, as women said they were blamed, humiliated and discriminated against by those in the criminal justice system.
"The vulnerability of women and girls to sexual violence is embedded in and supported by discriminatory social and cultural values, patterns and practices," the report said.
The study involved a review of 290 case files, as well as interviews and focus group discussions with more than 200 government officials, members of the criminal justice system and civil society groups, and people providing medical forensic and other support services.
It was conducted by the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, the UN Development Programme, and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.
"One of the most powerful findings is the pervasive gender stereotypes and biases that exist within the criminal justice system," Ms Anna-Karin Jatfors, deputy regional director of UN Women, told The Straits Times. Officials, for example, had specific ideas of how a "real" rape victim should behave.
"At the time of reporting, sometimes it is difficult to tell a female sex worker from a good woman," one male police officer was quoted saying in the report. "In the case of a good woman, the person who reports the crime generally seems confused and rather timid during the process."
Meanwhile, a female justice official was cited in the report saying: "Rape is something that only happens to 'low-class' people, the uneducated or migrants."
Justice officials and even victims of sexual violence sometimes tended to believe that "real rape" involves strangers, force and physical injury, even though the cases reviewed in the study showed the opposite: 91 per cent of the Thai victims and 86 per cent of the Vietnam victims reported knowing the suspect. Meanwhile, 68 per cent of Thai victims and 76 per cent of Vietnam victims have no visible signs of injury. One victim had to go to the police over 10 times before her case could proceed, with police attempting to mediate and settle the case against her wishes. She was told: "After all, he is the father of your baby."
Given the complex nature of the crime and taboo surrounding discussions, it can take weeks or even months before victims of sexual violence try to report a rape.
But "the majority of criminal justice officials interviewed noted their reliance on the examination of the vagina and detection of sperm, and the challenges in cases involving sexually mature female victims, and victims who delayed reporting or contaminated the forensic evidence by washing after being raped", the report noted.
Among other recommendations, the report suggested that officials be trained to understand the victims' realities, and that the police use specialised, multidisciplinary teams including forensic experts, healthcare workers, social workers and counsellors to deal with sexual assault cases.
Ms Jatfors said officials in Thailand and Vietnam had openly recognised the problems, and were actively working to reduce barriers to justice for victims of sexual violence.