Scottish Government plans that could facilitate meetings between sexual violence survivors and their attackers have come under fire in recent days.

An open letter to the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, signed by some Scottish Women’s Aid groups, as well as academics and experts on violence against women, warn that the restorative justice proposals could cause survivors “further harm”.

The signatories of the letter say that the plan risks putting pressure on women who have experienced abuse to resume contact with their abuser, some of whom may have spent years struggling to escape an abusive relationship.

The letter cites an academic study from 2004 which found that schemes which encourage an apology from abusers and forgiveness from victims “can be essential weapons for placing an offender in a position to inflict new wounds and re-open old ones”.

Restorative justice is not a new concept. It is used in many justice systems across the globe and under the right circumstances it can produce positive outcomes. It some situations, a face-to-face meeting with a perpetrator of crime might be useful to the victim. Some who have been affected by crime say that these meetings have helped bring closure and allowed them to properly process what happened to them.

But restorative justice is not a risk-free initiative, particularly when used for crimes where power and control is a key factor in the perpetrator’s motivation, as it always is in cases of domestic abuse and sexual violence. We need to tread very carefully here.

A test project will be rolled out in Edinburgh, and the Lothian and Borders next year before being introduced across the country. If these plans do go ahead, there will have to be a real emphasis placed on establishing best practice and a survivor-led approach to all face-to-face meetings.

The concern that these spaces could open up survivors to further abuse is a valid one and something that the Scottish Government will need to address when parliament returns from recess this week.

The Government says that restorative justice provides “safe communication between people harmed by crime and those responsible for the harm, to find a positive way forward”.

In response to the concerns that have been raised about the proposals it said: “In sensitive cases such as these, restorative justice will only ever be explored if the request comes from the person harmed, and then will only be taken forward if assessed as safe to do so.”

Ensuring that the meetings only come at the request of the survivor is a welcome first step. But we need to hear a lot more detail about how facilitators will protect women’s emotional wellbeing both during and after the meeting has taken place. There will also need to be specialist training for facilitators in gender-based violence and coercive control, so that they are able to properly support survivors and flag any concerns as soon as they arise.

It will require a different and perhaps more exhaustive approach to that taken for victims of other types of crime. And rightly so. For too long, Scotland’s justice system in its entirety has been ill-equipped to deal with crimes involving men’s violence against women.

Which is why – to our eternal shame – so many survivors say that their experience of the police and court system was actually worse than the incident they were seeking justice for.

Thanks in large part to the tireless work of women’s groups across Scotland, our understanding of gender-based violence has improved in recent years. It is now widely understood that domestic violence isn’t a momentary “loss of control” but a chosen course of action from a man who wants to wield power and control over his victim.

We know that sexual violence is not uncontrolled lust, but a violent expression of the perpetrators sense of entitlement and desire for power.

Though some myths still prevail, Scotland’s politicians are now at least in agreement that abuse is never a woman’s fault. As such, any scheme which is designed to help victims of men’s violence against women must be survivor-led and trauma-informed.

Guidance from the College of Policing states that restorative justice is “rarely appropriate in domestic abuse cases and not recommended in cases involving intimate partner abuse”. It points out that domestic abuse is “among the most hazardous of cases because of the risk to victims of re-victimisation or serious violence and the potential effects of controlling or coercive behaviour”.

Navigating these hazards as the scheme is trialled and rolled out across Scotland will be of the upmost importance. Abusive men are master manipulators. Let’s dispel the myth that these guys are easily-identifiable monsters: they’re not.

They are ordinary men doing ordinary jobs living entirely ordinary lives. They have friends, colleagues and neighbours who think highly of them and – if asked – will vouch for their good character.

An abusive man is always in control of his behaviour. Which is why it shouldn’t be at all surprising that he can maintain good relationships with others while behaving abusively towards his partner.

As survivors of abuse know all too well, an abuser’s contrition may seem genuine and their justifications and explanations for their behaviour may at first seem convincing.

When we speak about the causes of violence against women, external factors are often cited: football, alcohol, poor mental health, stress at work, infidelity. During Covid, there were numerous reports in the press about how lockdown had caused an uptick in intimate partner violence.

While some factors may exacerbate abuse or give abusers greater opportunities to perpetuate it, they aren’t in of themselves the causes of it. It is a need for control, not individual circumstances or stresses, that is the hallmark of an abuser. For that reason, these restorative justice plans come with inevitable and obvious risks.

It is for the Scottish Government to now address the concerns that have been raised so that survivors can have confidence that the scheme will not be exploited by manipulative men to cause further harm and trauma to survivors.

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