85,000 women are raped and over 400,000 are sexually assaulted in England and Wales each year. Yvette Huddleston visits a charity trying to help some of those victims in Yorkshire.
“I now know what happened to me was not my fault. I feel like a woman again, a person, someone who has value...”
These are the words of a woman who has been raped, but who has also been helped to come to terms with her terrible ordeal.
She is one of many women who have been helped by Rape Crisis centres across the country and they reveal both the lasting negative impact of sexual violence and the important role specialised sympathetic support plays in the healing process.
According to Government statistics released in January, 85,000 women are raped and over 400,000 are sexually assaulted in England and Wales each year.
With the issue currently very much in the news – the ongoing Savile enquiry, revelations about sexual abuse at Chetham’s School of Music and the brutal gang rape of a young woman in India – the need to support women who experience rape and sexual violence and ensure they are given a fair hearing by the police and criminal justice system, has never been greater.
An organisation in Leeds, set up in 2010, aims to do just that. SARSVL (Support After Rape and Sexual Violence Leeds) grew out of the will of a group of women committed to supporting women and girls and filling a gap left in Leeds by the closure of the city’s Rape Crisis Centre in 2001.
“We are a local autonomous charity offering confidential and independent support to women and girls who have experienced sexual violence at any point in their lives,” says Katie Russell, one of the charity’s founders.
“We are independent but part of the national Rape Crisis network.”
Katie was working at Barnsley Rape Crisis Centre, where she had been a project manager since 2004, when she decided to leave her job to set up SARSVL with the help of Sandra McNeill, a member of Leeds City Council’s Domestic Violence team.
“We got together in 2008 and called an open meeting,” explains Katie.
“Forty women came to that first meeting and out of those we set up a steering group of 15 women; we have been meeting every two weeks ever since.”
In 2010 the women set up a telephone helpline for four evenings a week, two hours at a time, staffed by trained volunteers.
“We ran it out of a space borrowed from a partner agency, the Citizens Advice Bureau, for two and a half years. We had four cohorts of volunteers who went through our training so we had enough women to staff the helpline.”
The charity runs training courses for volunteers twice a year and they are hoping to run more in the future. “It is an intensive commitment,” says Katie. “There are 12 sessions running over 10 weeks. We ask women who apply to come along to a selection evening where we do a number of exercises to assess their suitability. “
Each time they run a course, a huge number of women apply from all backgrounds, age groups, ethnicities and walks of life.
“There are feminist principles at the basis of the organisation – we are providing a service for women by women,” says Katie. “We are working together for a common aim – without all the volunteers we couldn’t run the service.” There are around 30 volunteers in all – 16 staffing the helpline and 14 contributing in other ways.
Rachel Vernelle is a voluntary trustee who has been a member of the steering group since it was first set up.
“I got involved partly because I have always been a feminist and I have always been interested in the issue of sexual violence,” she says. ”At that initial meeting it was also great to see younger women who are just as passionate about these issues as we ever were.
“I give talks to various partner organisations and we are in the early stages of setting up links with schools, talking to young people about relationships,” she says. “We are also engaging with the Crown Prosecution Service for Yorkshire and Humberside.”
It is a measure of the standing that SARSVL has achieved in a relatively short space of time that the CPS approached the charity, along with other organisations supporting victims, to work with them.
“We have been examining real life cases and looking at how decisions have been reached about whether to take a case to court,” says Rachel. “We make suggestions to the CPS on how to approach things and they act on those suggestions. We are working together to increase conviction rates.” They are work with the West Yorkshire police.
“We have done a lot of work with the police around dealing more sensitively with the issues surrounding rape and sexual violence,” says Katie. “We also work with other voluntary sector agencies, women’s organisations and the Refugee Council in Leeds.”
This month marks a major milestone in the development
The charity received some funding from the Ministry of Justice last April which enabled them to expand the helpline services to include text and email, to invest in more training and now for the first time they can offer face-to-face emotional support to women.
They have also recently moved into their own premises in central Leeds and taken on two paid development co-ordinators. Before receiving the Ministry of Justice start-up grant, the charity had largely relied on community fundraising, sponsorship and donations.
One of the key areas of SARSVL’s work is raising public awareness and understanding of sexual violence.
“We want to create a supportive environment,” says Katie. “And that means providing the best quality service we can and having a strong presence in the community.”
With the issues surrounding sexual violence and abuse being discussed more openly due to recent events and revelations, SARSVL will have a significant contribution to make in helping to change attitudes.
“The message that keeps coming through is that victims should be believed,” says Rachel. “Time and again there have been examples where the authorities have not believed young women. It is incredibly important that victims are listened to and taken seriously.”
Contact: www.supportafterrapeleeds.org.uk or call SARSVL’s free confiendital helpline on 0808 802 3344; text on 07797 803211; email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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