'I'm no sad victim. I've seen and survived the darkest side of life'

Amina pairs women who have experienced sexual violence with volunteers who have been through the same ordeal - and turns their perceived 'victim' status on its head. Rachel Bell reports

Rachel Bell, 10 March 2008

It is well documented that one in three women will be a victim of male sexual violence in her lifetime. Men and boys inflict violence on more than three million women in the UK every year. Child sex abuse, sexual harassment, sexual exploitation, stalking, domestic violence, trafficking, forced marriage and honour crimes are daily hazards for girls and women. Britain has long been living with a rape epidemic. A rape is reported to the police every 34 minutes. And how does our 'civilised' society guard against the normalization of male violence? Does our government send a clear message that abusing and raping girls and women is not acceptable? Does it send a clear message that it will look after the millions of women with shattered selves, suffering the same symptoms as veterans of war and victims of torture?

The women I meet are not emotional, they're angry, and they want to make sure that the next woman it happens to gets the right services, gets justice, has someone to tell them things like you may end up with a man when you're medically examined and it sucks, but I understand how you feel and I'll be there for you

"It's to our shame as a nation that we do not have a national 24-hour rape crisis helpline," says Denise Marshall, director of Eaves and founder of the Amina scheme, which pairs women who experience sexual violence and volunteers with similar experiences. "I just can't believe we don't have enough rape crisis centres, I find it appalling. There's one rape crisis centre in the whole of London, in Croyden, and that's it." The Eaves charity comprises Eaves Supported Housing, Eaves Women's Aid, the Poppy Project, the only government-funded anti-trafficking project in the UK and the Lilith Project, which deals with all other forms of violence against women. The Amina scheme is part of Lilith. Denise Marshall is outraged at the paucity of services: "I'm a really big fighter in what I do. I've fought and I've argued for trafficked women, I've fought and argued for domestic violence. But for rape and sexual assault, we've got nothing, it's less than nothing."

A look at Map of Gaps and it's easy to share Marshall's anger. Compiled by the Child and Women Abuse Studies Unit at London Metropolitan University, the report shows the postcode lottery of support services, that unless you're lucky enough to be raped in one in five local authorities at a particular time of day, you can forget getting help if you're a victim of gender-based violence in the UK. The shameful services are not the only thing that compelled Marshall to set up the Amina scheme. The trigger came within her post as chair of the independent advisory group for the Sapphire Unit of the Metropolitan Police, which investigates rape, where Marshall was disturbed by the way a particular 'victim' was being used.

"A woman who'd been raped sat on the committee and, with the best will in the world, I felt it was very tokenistic, Marshall says. "She wanted to do something positive with her horrific experience, but because she wasn't an agency or a professional, she wasn't listened to, or given any opportunity to do so. It was a case of let's hear about her rape and how grateful she is for the help she got. It wasn't a real appointment." Denise encountered the woman again at a conference on rape and sexual assualt. "It was like she was wheeled on as this token of universal victimhood. It didn't give that woman any credit, or any strength, or any ability to take back her life. I found that exploitative and not the best use of a woman's resource."

Marshall's work has brought her into contact with countless victims and, she says, "It's like, if you're a victim, you don't get taken seriously, you're emotional. The women I meet are not emotional, they're angry, and they want to make sure that the next woman it happens to gets the right services, gets justice, has someone to tell them things like, actually the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] doesn't work for you, it works for the state and yes, you may end up with a man when you're medically examined and it sucks, but I understand how you feel and I'll be there for you."

Last summer, a group of women who had experienced sexual violence of all levels came together to be trained as the first Amina volunteers for the pilot scheme. Some had been through unspeakable things, unimaginable hells. All had come out the other side. Strong, driven, sensitive, kind, clever women. Women with interesting careers, families, students, some with experience in the sector already - a bunch of ordinary women with something extraordinary to give. Training was provided by Liz Kelly and Maddy Coy from CWASU, giving it feminist framework, and included seminars on the 'report to court' process, the normalisation of pornography, understanding issues such as self harm and honour violence, and a workshop on support skills delivered by South Essex Rape and Incest Crisis Centre. Visits to courts and the London's three Havens - which offer victims of sexual assault forensic examinations, health checks, counselling and help deciding if they wish to report the crime - were also part of the training. Each volunteer commits two hours a week to meet up with another woman who has experienced sexual violence. The volunteers call themselves 'peer supporters' - women who draw on their own experiences to help other women rebuild their lives. They can help women understand what to expect from police and the justice system should they wish to report the crime, accompany them to court appearances or medical appointments, help them revisit areas, or things, they find uncomfortable, help them regain self-confidence by trying new activities, support them in accessing housing advice, or just meet for a coffee and a chat after a heavy day at work. The peer supporters are there to give recognition to and listen to women's experiences and needs. The volunteers are not counsellors or an emergency service. Their gift is their understanding of the damage of male sexual violence, and the strength of women. Of how just a little of the right help, the right kindnesses, can make all the difference to a woman's chance at recovery.

Existing services simply don't have the resources to offer the kind of ongoing aftercare and time-consuming support that many women will need following an assault

No one else has offered such a scheme. Amina is groundbreaking because it draws on women's experience and resource to practically and emotionally help other women. It is about volunteers drawing support off each other, too - examining their experiences, sharing their strengths and using them for good. Frances Brodrick is manager of the research development team at Eaves and supervises the development of the Amina scheme. She says: "Amina has clear benefits for both the volunteer and the women receiving the service. It sends out a message to society about women working together and supporting each other and sharing their experiences. I think the whole sisterly thing is a really positive element of it."

Another benefit is the equal relationship between peer supporter and client. As Brodrick says: "Lots of women that we come into contact [with] at Eaves have support workers, mental health workers, police officers and professionals who are paid to look after them - and that inevitably has a power dynamic. There's always a clear boundary when one person in the equation is a paid professional. An important aspect of Amina is that it lessens that feeling of 'them and us'."

Often the first - or only - time women recount their experience is in the form of a police statement, or during a conversation with a professional. Brodrick says: "I've sat in on police interviews and felt awful to see how it's clearly re-traumatising the woman, having to respond to really blunt questioning, even by experienced police officers. Their priority is getting evidence, not the support needs of the woman. And while London's three Havens are an absolutely fantastic service for victims of sexual violence, they simply don't have the resources to offer the kind of ongoing aftercare and time-consuming support that many women will need following an assault. Amina gives women time to process and talk about [their] experiences at their own pace, in a more holistic framework."

We spend huge amounts in this country on complete nonsense and then we don't fund services for women who get raped and sexually assaulted

Cat Whitehouse, the sexual violence resource worker at The Lilith Project, has been promoting the Amina scheme. Referrals for Amina have been coming in from London's Sapphire Units and London's three Havens, who were the first to be briefed about the scheme. Whitehouse says: "We're not surprised that most referrals have come through the Havens or the police's Sapphire units: they understand that women who come to them in crisis often need support they just can't provide. There are so many GPs, social services, women's groups and homeless agencies that it's probably going to take a lot longer for them to hear about the scheme and begin to refer women." Once the scheme is more widely known, Whitehouse also anticipates more self-referrals.

Amina sees its service users covering a wide demographic, including women with language issues, women with domestic violence issues, women who might have been trafficked, and Black, Minority Ethnic and Refugee women. Training for the next round of volunteers will be focused for BMER women.

It's clear that Amina is close to Marshall's heart. She describes the volunteers as "fabulous", saying that they've all been "blown away" by them from the off. She's furious that they're not paid. I ask Marshall what her hopes are for the scheme. "I want it to be a fantastic service, I want it to be funded so it's open to all women to do as a job. I want women to be able to get the service across London. We spend huge amounts in this country on complete nonsense and then we don't fund services for women who get raped and sexually assaulted. One of the things that worries me is that women who've been raped are talking to police or going through the system are not getting the information. You know that someone thinks it's easier to send them to Victim Support. I'm not having a go at Victim Support, but they're not specialists. For me, it's really important that women get access to the best tailor-made service. I do not want some 21-year-old who is raped not having anybody to talk to, at any time, day or night. It should be just a given that there is someone out there who can help and support her. That is her right, that's what she's entitled to.'

An Amina volunteer on why she joined the scheme

When I escaped from the men who raped me, I had no idea what else was coming or that it would last so long. I am an extremely rare case. I put two rapists away. I was a 'good victim'. I went to the police the next day, the rapists used a weapon, I had bruises, hell even a red line on my throat. I was a nice, middle class, white girl, I was sober, covered up and I was not dating the rapists. No-one could argue that alcohol, sexy clothes or having fun raped me.

The rapists didn't get put away for long enough, but getting justice did help me recover. I know I was lucky to get it. But justice is such a small part. The aftermath is when the deepest pain took hold of me. My confidence was shattered. The rapists took my joy, my mojo, the person I was and that loss filled me with anger and grief. I was easily disturbed, easily panicked and had nightmares too terrible to repeat.

My hurt was made far worse by reactions of friends and family - my mum said, "Oh my God, I thought you were going to tell me you're pregnant," while one close friend never even acknowledged it happening and has said nothing at all. If something horrific happens in the movies, there's always someone to make it better afterwards. I ached for someone to love me better and it never came.

On a bad day, Rape Crisis weren't open when I needed them, so I resorted to the Samaritans. The woman was shocked when I told her what had happened to me. I had to reassure her. Her over-the-top-reaction just made me feel lonelier. It would have helped me immeasurably to tell my story to someone kind and close to me. But no one asked. They didn't want to know. Rape is everywhere but it has no place in the office, at dinner with friends, in the pub. People don't want to mention it, they'd say they didn't want to upset you by bringing it up. They don't have the tools or the words to talk to you. They can't say 'rape'.

I know what a momentous difference it would have made to me if the opportunity to talk to that friend had happened sooner

Rape should be an issue for the community, instead it becomes taboo. My story, who I was, was like I secret that I carried like a burden. I acted my way through life, through work, feeling detached, displaced. My sadness, anger, frustration, the total absence of recognition or understanding, the sense of being displaced from the world, it overwhelmed me so much, I was afraid of going mad. I came to understand why a person would want to commit suicide, I could see the relief in death.

Going from report to court, one person, a male doctor, was kind to me. I will always remember him and value his small kindness. I remember the other doctor, the nurses and the judge who did not treat me like a human.

Many years later, an old friend and I had an opportunity to talk and she made it easy for me. She made it clear she was happy to listen. I love her for what she did. Finally, I sought help from a psychoanalyst and paid for therapy to get rid of what the rapists left me - a heaviness in my body, that was me, yet stopped me being me and would never, ever budge, a heavy cynicism weighing me down. The rapists or the government should have paid for that, not me.

Every day I am angry that I live in a country, like most, that doesn't give a shit that its 'ordinary' boys and men are violent, think they have entitlements to women's bodies and are raping girls and women. I'm no sad victim. Rapists are the shameful ones. I've seen and survived the darkest side of life. I'm more aware, emphatic, politicised and passionate and I meet people like me now. I feel strong, I do work that fulfills me, I have friends that I love, I have the dream boyfriend.

I was extraordinarily lucky to get justice - my right. I think about what it must be like for the millions of women who do not, for the millions of women who are raped by men they know, men who are in their families and social circles, men who are allowed to walk the same streets as them. I admire women so much. I want to help them get themselves back, show them that it's possible. I know what a difference small kindnesses or just recognition, for fuck's sake, makes. And I know what a momentous difference it would have made to me if the opportunity to talk to that friend had happened sooner. This volunteering gives the rape meaning.

Amina is a support scheme for women who are living with experiences of rape or sexual abuse. If you are interested in using or referring a woman to the Amina scheme, please contact Cat Whitehouse or Frances Brodrick on 020 7840 7959 or email amina@eaveshousing.co.uk. eaves4women.co.uk

About the author

Rachel Bell

Rachel Bell is a freelance journalist

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