How a groundbreaking new self-swab kit could empower rape survivors

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Sarah Biddlecombe

A groundbreaking new self-examination kit could potentially help “millions” of rape victims around the world.

The kit, described as a “a tampon-like applicator with a DNA swab inside it”, has been designed to help rape victims collect vital DNA samples without having to undergo an invasive medical exam.

It has been developed by a team of British researchers from the University of Leicester, with the project spearheaded by Lisa Smith, who works as an associate professor in criminology at the university.

The kit will primarily be made available to help rape victims in war zones and refugee camps, where access to both medical equipment and expertise can be extremely limited.

The researchers hope the kit will offer a simple and effective alternative for rape victims looking to collect DNA from their attackers, without the need for a medical exam.

“The exams that are performed after this violent act are very invasive and many people don’t want them at all,” Smith told Refinery29.

“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'.”

The kit includes a swab shaped like a tampon, to help the victim insert it properly. It also has an applicator to ensure the swab does not come into contact with any other DNA apart from the sample being collected.

The kits were tested by a group of volunteer couples and the results showed that the DNA of a specific male could be retrieved up to 32 hours after sex.

And while Smith acknowledges that a medical exam is still the most thorough way of collecting DNA evidence from a rape victim, she hopes the new kit will provide a sound alternative for victims who don’t have access to a doctor, or who can’t face the thought of an exam. This, in turn, could help to convict more rapists, especially in cases where the attacker is a stranger to the victim.

“Where the assailant is not known to victim, it is essential that we get the evidence in the first place,” she told BBC News.

“Where the assailant is not known to victim, it is essential that we get the evidence."
“Where the assailant is not known to victim, it is essential that we get the evidence."

The team of researchers said that while the majority of rapes in the UK are domestic crimes, with around 90% of victims knowing their perpetrator before the attack, the opposite is true in war zones and developing countries.

The team’s next steps are to finalise the design of the swabs, before they can be used for further testing and field testing.

They are also planning to head to Kenya before the end of the year to present the kit to stakeholders including police officers, prosecutors, NGOs and survivors of sexual violence, with the hope of getting kits out to high-risk areas as early as 2018.

“We hope these kits will help bring justice to potentially millions of victims globally… to help empower women to prosecute crimes and hopefully prevent them occurring in the future,” Smith said.

If you, or anyone you know, needs help or support, please visit the Rape Crisis website now.

Images: iStock


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Sarah Biddlecombe

Sarah Biddlecombe is an award-winning journalist and Digital Commissioning Editor at Stylist. Follow her on Twitter