7 March 2019
Written by Lula Dembele, Voices for Change advocate.
Content warning: The following content contains real life stories and people speaking about domestic and family violence.
Victims and survivors of sexual, domestic and family violence face many challenges when it comes to being heard, believed and receiving support.
From the minute my mum suspected I was being sexually abused she sought appropriate assistance. Yet at every turn she faced denial, minimisation, direct or indirect blame.
The first person she reported her concerns to was a female doctor who did not take my mum’s suspicion seriously, trying to rationalise other reasons why I exhibited physical symptoms of abuse.
Next my mum took me to the children’s hospital for examination. Although they were clinically helpful, the way they confirmed that I had been chronically sexually abused was layered with judgement; ‘how did you let this happen to your daughter?’.
Next came engagement with the law. My mother wanted to give me every opportunity for justice as part of my healing journey, so we reported the sexual abuse to the police.
Although the police took our statements and noted the allegations, seeking charges and prosecution would be an exercise in re-traumatisation. I was four years old and it was explained I would have had to be by myself in the witness stand, the perpetrator present, while lawyers asked me questions. My mum would not be allowed in the court room as she could be perceived to be coaching me.
I wanted justice, but I did not want to see the perpetrator ever again. Let alone by myself without the one person who was my protector, my mum. I was given the choice, and under those circumstances, I chose not to pursue criminal charges.
Family, although supportive, was also a source of frustration and disappointment.
My grandmother said ‘you know little girls, always wriggling around in men’s laps’. This excused the perpetrator’s targeting of a child for ongoing sexual violation, and attributed blame to me for ‘provoking’ him.
My aunty, who was a lawyer, told my mum that victims of child sexual abuse often grow up to be prostitutes. This added to my mum’s anxiety about how my life would be impacted and made me feel like I was ‘damaged goods’.
It doesn’t take much to discourage a victim reporting or remove any confidence people will believe you. Many victims of sexual, domestic and family abuse have been systematically striped of their self-worth by the perpetrator in order to keep them trapped in the cycle of abuse.
Breaking that cycle and taking that first step to seek help is scary and extremely difficult. A flippant remark loaded with victim blaming or minimising the perpetrator’s accountability can stop a victim speaking out.
The challenges victims face in feeling heard, believed, and supported often come from those closest to them. Those we are told are there to protect us, the police and legal system, often aren’t set up to properly support victims.
Sensitively responding to a victim’s disclosure can be as simple as listening without interrupting or judgement. You don’t have to provide the solution. It is O.K. to say something if you have suspicions as well. Many people are glad to finally have the chance to talk about what they are going through. Your choice of words and attitude could be the difference in someone taking steps to escape abuse and violence or staying stuck in a harmful and dangerous situation.
For more information on how to support a victim of sexual, domestic or family violence, go to www.1800respect.org.au. If you are unsafe at home, please contact the Canberra Domestic Violence Crisis Service 24/7 on 02 6280 0900.
Bio: Lula Dembele is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and domestic violence, and an advocate for Voices for Change Program to advance understanding that people experiencing domestic and family violence are people you know.