SPEECH AT MOPAC LAUNCH OF VAWG STRATEGY, LONDON
CITY HALL - 26TH NOVEMBER 2013
Good Afternoon, as you have heard I am a Rape Crisis service user and campaigner to end violence against women.
I’d like to thank the Mayor’s Office for including survivor’s voices, not just today on this panel but also during the consultation process that led to the creation of this Strategy on Violence Against Women & Girls. At the Solace Rape Crisis Centre, I have benefitted enormously from an approach which places service users at the centre of decision making processes and involves us in shaping the future direction of the organisation.
Violence against women & girls is a vast area, which comes in many forms & encompasses a broad range of experience for survivors. Sexual violence includes many losses for those of us who experience it. During my assault, I felt I had no control. Putting myself back together afterwards I felt I’d lost my dignity.
This is a feeling I share with many other women & girls who carry the shame of the violence inflicted upon us, despite the fact we are not to blame. The culture of so-called ‘victim-blaming’ reinforces these messages and pours petrol on an already enflamed situation. For those of us who survive long-term, and many don’t, there is a loss of health which has touched every area of my life.
Central to all of these losses is disempowerment & that is why Rape Crisis’ approach has been so vital in supporting survivors to help ourselves. When I first joined their expertly facilitated group, I was badly in need of care. However, as the weeks progressed & my strength began to return, I found small amounts of extra energy that I could share in supporting others.
This process is very healing for everyone in the group, regardless of the stage you’re at. It’s just as important to be afforded the opportunity to help as it is to receive it. The commitment of the Mayor’s Office in continuing to fund these services makes a very real difference. Rape Crisis aren’t just concerned with putting bodies back together, they’re helping repair minds and spirits too.
Many of us will share the Mayor’s vision for London to become the “best big city in the world”. The launch of this Strategy demonstrates that it is as much about social policy as it is about infrastructure. This means making genuine, effective provision for the health & welfare of our population which is responsive to people’s needs.
The opportunity exists in London to bring together exceptional services such as Rape Crisis, world class academics including the Child & Women Abuse Studies Unit and encouraged local government here at the Mayor’s Office to create a provision which stands as a global benchmark.
The ways in which women & girls process experiences of violence are many & varied. Staff at Rape Crisis are well-versed in these nuances, and are able to deal with them in a separate way from the police whose priorities are very different, & have to be very different. A key factor for me in accessing services was the issue of reporting.
With due respect and credit to the huge efforts of the police for improvements in this area, I expect officers would agree that reporting crime remains a stressful experience, particularly in relation to sexual violence. From a criminal justice perspective, it may be desirable to take statements as quickly as possible. However, for some of us, surviving our day to day lives in the aftermath of an assault, can already be too overwhelming.
In my case the trauma of my experiences led to a serious suicide attempt. I didn’t want to die, but I couldn’t live with the pain, flashbacks and legacy of my attack. I had not been able to describe out loud the specifics of my experience. I was certainly in no condition to be able to make a detailed statement to the police. If this had been necessary before accessing support, I would have remained stuck, isolated in a very dangerous place. Rape Crisis works from a basis of belief. For many survivors three words can be life changing, hearing someone say “I believe you”. They listened to my story & focused on my needs.
The responsibility for sexual violence should sit firmly with the perpetrator & yet as survivors we torture ourselves with guilt over when & if to make a report to the police. We are sick with fear for other women & girls who may be hurt by the same perpetrator. The reality is that it can take time to be strong enough to reach that point.
I contacted the police on half a dozen occasions before my health allowed me to arrange to make a full statement. During the interim, it’s vital that we take on board the truth that the perpetrator alone is responsible for their actions. Given the time & support however, we are probably better placed to see the legal process through to it’s conclusion.
Whilst I hope I’ve clearly set out my view on the importance of having a service which is independent of the police, I would like to complete the picture by praising the wonderful job Rape Crisis advocates do in supporting survivors when we do want to make a report. The advocate I spoke to offered to accompany me to the Police station & remain there with me whilst I made my statement. She also offered to take me to an empty courtroom, so that I could look around & see what the space was like.
There are opportunities to sit in on someone else’s case, to view where you will stand to give evidence, where the jury will be and so on. These might sound strange field trips to make, but these are the very things which help to prepare & keep survivors involved in the reporting process, which ultimately enables the police & court system to see justice served.
I am very pleased to see the Mayor’s Office setting a direction to combat violence against women & girls. This work has had a profound impact on my personal capacity to deal with trauma. The commitment to continue will touch the lives of countless more survivors of gender-based violence in our city.
I began talking to you about losses & I’d like to finish by looking at the potential that can be unlocked through freeing London’s women & girls from that violence & its after-effects. Living with a trauma-related condition is a fact of life for many survivors. However, with the right support we can move from simply existing to thriving & we’ll bring others with us. We have so much to offer our communities and this great city.
We have been reminded in the last week of the positive role the media can play in empowering women to reach out for help. I feel very privileged to be able to speak out on sexual violence, to go some way to ending survivor-stigma & to hopefully share with others the safe, supportive spaces that exist in our city.
I was very proud to work with Camden Council last month in organising a successful event to celebrate World Mental Health Awareness Day. Those who attended will know that it truly was a celebration, a positive inclusive day for service users, friends & families to enjoy together. The impact of surviving violence on mental health is well known & it’s important that policy acknowledges these long-term needs.
The Mayor’s strategy rightly focusses on London’s women & girls, however in supporting us back onto our feet, we’ll be working alongside you building towards that vision of London as the ‘best big city in the world’.