New feature: ‘I’m no sad victim. I’ve seen and survived the darkest side of life’

Amina pairs women who have experience sexual violence with volunteers who have been through the same ordeal – and turns their perceived ‘victim’ status on its head. Rachel Bell reports

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?

“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.”

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