Lisa Smith, an associate professor in criminology at the University of Leicester, first began exploring the idea of using forensics to bolster evidence collection in rape cases in 2014 after attending the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict.
The high-powered meeting, which brought together world leaders, activists and celebrities like Angelina Jolie, highlighted the urgent need for qualified medical staff and well-equipped clinics to perform exams on rape victims in war-torn areas of the world and in refugee camps (the number of these has increased since the mass exodus of migrants fleeing conflict and persecution in places like Syria and Iraq).
For Smith, though, the discussions raised a question as to whether medical exams were really the right answer to sexual violence in conflict-ravaged areas.
“The exams that are performed after this violent act are very invasive and many people don’t want them at all,” she says. “I thought to myself, ‘There has to be a way to give women control so that they don’t have to endure those exams, and yet recover the evidence that’s needed'.”
Smith – a forensics expert who began studying the science long before it was popularised in fiction and on television crime shows – devised a self-swab rape kit that, she says, a victim can use to collect DNA evidence herself.
The swab is shaped like a tampon – it has an applicator that helps the user with proper placement, protecting the swab as it’s being inserted and removed so that it does not come into contact with any other DNA. While Smith says that a proper medical exam is the gold standard of evidence collection for victims of rape and sexual violence, the self-swab kit is a solid alternative for women who don’t have access to a doctor or who may not wish to go to a doctor in the immediate aftermath of a violent act – which then reduces the possibility of collecting the kind of solid evidence that’s required in court.
The University of Leicester nominated the swab for a Research Impact Award earlier this year and once the prototype is finalised, it will be tested in a few places, including Kenya, where rape and sexual violence are a huge problem. Most recently, there were reports of many women, girls and boys across the country being raped in the aftermath of August's presidential elections.
“Sexual violence here has become a political issue and we’re having lots of challenges in supporting survivors, because some areas are aligned to political parties and tribal lines,” says Wangu Kanja, founder of the Wangu Kanja Foundation in Nairobi, an organisation that works with victims of sexual violence in Kenya and will be among the first to distribute the self-swab exam kit. “If we are able to support more survivors and allow them to access justice by preserving evidence for prosecution of more cases, that will work as a deterrent.”
Kanja, who was raped in a carjacking incident in 2002, believes that restoring dignity to survivors of sexual violence is paramount. The best way to do so, she says, is to empower survivors by giving them access to comprehensive care and support, but that isn’t so easy in a country like Kenya, where resources are limited and the fear of stigma and discrimination, along with cultural and religious beliefs, holds many victims back and prevents them from reporting rape.
“As a country, we don't have a national rape kit tool and we lack a strong referral mechanism that collects the data on reported cases and to compile reports for distribution or sharing with the relevant institutions,” Kanja says. “This swab kit will ensure that we preserve and maintain the chain of evidence to be presented in court. Currently, most of the cases are lost because evidence is lost for one reason or the other… I have faith that the self-examination rape kit will add value to the country's access to justice mechanisms.”
In tests, the swab was able to come up with a genetic match for the DNA it collected 32 hours after use. It would be tough to refute that evidence, Smith says, yet “while it’s difficult to argue against someone’s DNA on an intimate swab, sadly, there will always be scepticism surrounding women, particularly if women are accusing men they know, like their boyfriends or their husbands,” which might potentially limit a more widespread use of the swab beyond zones of conflict.
Unfortunately, there is a persistent belief – and this is the case in many countries, including the UK – that victims of rape commonly make false allegations, agrees Rachel Krys, co-director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition. The reality (in the UK, anyway) is that there are very few prosecutions for doing so “because false allegations about sexual offences are very rare and certainly are no more likely than any other type of crime.”
While in the UK there has been a dramatic rise in the number of survivors reporting rape to the police, Krys says it’s critical that the police and the courts, the government and all parties involved in frontline services do what it takes to keep driving this momentum to engage with survivors in their journey towards achieving justice, and send them a strong message that as victims of sexual violence, they will be believed, supported, and not blamed for their own assaults. Currently, only 5% of the 15% of reported rape cases reach a legal conclusion, Krys says.
“A crucial factor is the support women get when they have reported sexual violence – we know that when they get timely access to independent sexual violence services and advocated they are better able to get justice and receive long-term support to recover,” she says. “These services are simply not available to everyone who needs them and that is having a real impact on how the criminal justice service is able to respond to sexual violence.”
To that end, a self-exam kit that can help a victim collect evidence as easily as possible would be a good step in the right direction (although for now, the swab will only be deployed in conflict zones and in refugee camps). However, “We have to be sure that any new system works at every stage of the criminal justice system,” Krys says. “Women who report rape and sexual violence need to know the system will work for them, as there is too much at stake for them to rely on a new technology, and then to be let down later on.”