How Do You Support Survivors Of Abuse?

04/10/2017 13:48 BST | Updated 04/10/2017 13:48 BST

It is no secret that I am a huge fan of the Rape Crisis model of working with survivors of sexual violence and abuse. In 2008 Dr Helen Jones and I published a history of the rape crisis movement in the United Kingdom. At the time the services we wrote about were struggling for funding and some had closed down. It seemed that times were pretty lean, for this form of support work. Since then there has been some resurgence, but today women's services are again under increasing pressure, together with much of the rest of the voluntary sector.

In the case of Rape Crisis this is particularly poignant, given the endless high-profile revelations about historic cases of rape, child abuse and sexual assault. As I write this the BBC has reported that a Metropolitan policeman has been charged with rape and indecent assault dating back to the early 2000s. These news reports impact on many women. The survivors in the cases (and here six women are involved) are the people most obviously affected. However anyone living locally or anyone else who is reminded of their own experience by this report may also have support needs arising from this one news story. Daily the impact of news reporting reminds survivors that rape is common; that women are killed and hurt and that the perpetrators are not always caught, or punished.

The Rape Crisis movement is uniquely placed to provide ongoing support to survivors of these types of crime, and does so without charge, no matter how long ago the victimisation took place. Rape Crisis expertise is based on women's lived experience. In other words, the movement draws from the accounts of rape that support workers at rape crisis have heard, or read. The support aims to avoid medicalising women's responses to these crimes and simply understands their coping mechanisms as ways of surviving horrendous indignity and invasion. Rape crisis work aims to help women to live the best and most fulfilling lives they can, despite their experiences of abuse.

So, this Rape Crisis work builds its knowledge from women's lived experience, in a method described by "second wave" feminists, such as me, as "consciousness-raising". The model for rape crisis came from the women's liberation movement in the United States in the 1960s. This system of learning from our own experiences and those of other women has built a movement that now spans many countries of the world. For example, the Rape Crisis Network Europe website lists groups in 46 European countries.

However even proponents such as me acknowledge that there are risks inherent in this method of working. The consciousness-raising approach can inadvertently exclude women, if the source of the accounts of rape is not sufficiently inclusive. If disabled women, women working in prostitution, the old, the very young, those from different races or cultural backgrounds are left out, then the support given may also exclude. Where the specific needs of women with different lived experience are not understood then the services provided may put up barriers which some women find it hard to cross.

This is a limitation that the rape crisis groups in the UK have struggled with over many years. The focus has often been on Black women's services and some groups have specialist provision for Black women by Black women. In the mid-1990s, for example, when the first rape crisis national organisation was set up (then called the "federation") it immediately founded a Black workers network, to try to create space for inclusivity to develop. In truth, the list of exclusions given above may not be inclusive enough, there may be groups within groups who are more excluded than others (for example, it might be that deaf women are targeted for forms of abuse that other disabled women do not commonly experience).

The BBC series Three Girls reminded viewers of the terrible impact that abuse can have and made many people think about the exclusion of young women who have lived through abuse. As Katherine Sacks Jones has pointed out, it showed the ways in which the youngsters from Rochdale we let down by agencies. It also demonstrated how adaptable support needs to be to make a real difference for young women who have been through so much. Clearly more might be done to create a better network of specialist services.

A new study is now underway which aims to learn more about what women, in Greater Manchester, want in terms of specialist services after rape, sexual assault, sexual exploitation, or any other form of sexual abuse. This work is being led by a coalition of women's groups, Manchester Rape Crisis; Trafford Rape Crisis and, importantly, Manchester Action on Street Health. The research is using a questionnaire, available online, to begin to collect women's views, but the team aim to use a range of ways of delivering these questions to women who might not access an online survey. It is hoped that this will produce knew knowledge about what can help a wider range of women to survive and thrive after rape. The aim is to include women from as broad a cross-section of the population of Greater Manchester as possible. The knowledge created by this survey will then be available for anyone, from anywhere, to make use of.

The research is called "Voices of Survivors" and the project is supported by funding from the Lloyds Bank Foundation of England and Wales. Becky Clarke and I, both from Manchester Metropolitan University are academics supporting the development of this work, together with two students from the university, Saffron and Sara. You can read more about the work, the team and access the survey, at the VOSGM website.

The Voices of Survivors project deserves and needs support, especially from those in Greater Manchester. If you can offer any help, particularly in terms of accessing the views of those who might be excluded from public opinion research, then do please get in touch, via the website.