All women are vulnerable to sexual assault

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Women are almost always the victims of sexual assaults and to highlight the issue, Bermuda has designated April as Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Nadia Arandjelovic talks to people dealing with the problem

  • Women of all ages and backgrounds are vulnerable to sexual assaults, says the Women’s Resource Centre.

    Women of all ages and backgrounds are vulnerable to sexual assaults, says the Women’s Resource Centre.
    (Photo Illustration by Mark Tatem)

What You Can Do

There are some things that people can do to protect themselves against the risk of sexual assault.
Here are the top six suggestions from the Women’s Resource Centre executive assistant Sherrie Outerbridge, and a former crisis hotline counsellor Toni Daniels.

1. Be aware of your surroundings. Also be aware of your space and don’t let strangers violate that space. Check around the immediate area of your car or house before entering (and get your keys out beforehand, so you are not fiddling around in the dark).
2. Listen to your intuition. If someone or a particular place makes you feel intimidated or fearful do not ignore those feelings.
3. Stay with friends. Do not walk home at night alone or even ask a friend/ taxi driver to wait until you get inside safely.
4. Take a self defence class. Having the skills to know how to ward off an attacker, even for a few brief seconds, could save your life. The centre is offering a course in July.
5. Pay attention. Some women listen to iPods or talk on cell phones when walking/driving late at night, but this makes them unable to hear when someone or something approaches from behind. It is also important to keep a close eye on your drink when you are out at a club/bar/party.
6. Look into buying safety devices. Whether it’s a whistle or safety alarm, such devices can help you get attention from passersby or scare an attacker away.
Useful numbers
Women’s Resource Center: 295-3882.
WRC’s 24hour hotline: 295-7273
Police: 911
Local police stations: Hamilton 295-0011, Somerset 234-1010, St. George’s 297-1122
Police Domestic Violence Liaison Officer: 299-4478
Women’s Clinic: 278-6475

Last year three teenaged girls and two children were among the 15 victims of sexual assault in Bermuda a three percent increase on 2009, but the real number will be higher as many victims will not report an attack.

Victims are often chosen because the assailant sees them as vulnerable, which is why they are traditionally drawn from groups seen as the most powerless, including women and children.

And people who fall prey to sexual violence react in a variety of different ways be it anger, shock or guilt and a person’s method of coping with this crisis is usually influenced by the methods of coping they found effective in other situations.

Survivors sometimes fear retaliation; they fear police, the hospital and court procedures. Teenagers fear their parents will find out or that they won’t be believed; and often victims feel embarrassment or self-blame.

According to Elaine Williams, the executive director of the Women’s Resource Centre (WRC), all women are vulnerable to being raped, regardless of race, class, age and occupation.

She said although the Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) responded to 15 sex attacks last year, the figure could be higher as some sexual assaults go unreported to SART as victims go directly to hospital, while others do not wish to file a complaint.

“The Women’s Resource Centre is working to increase awareness about sexual assaults in the community, in hopes that education will create more awareness and hopefully prevention. Education and awareness empowers potential victims to avoid sexual assaults; and [provides] victims with the knowledge of what help is available,” said Ms Williams.

She said counselling was an integral step towards healing, saying sexual assault was “a traumatic event in anyone’s life and people may not be able to recover emotionally without intervention”.

Veronica Outerbridge, a counselor at WRC, said she had noticed an increase in reports of women being accosted in daylight even while walking to parking lots to collect their cars.

“We have also received e-mails from businesswomen warning of similar incidents and warning others to be aware of their surroundings at all times. We were recently made aware of a car travelling late at night being chased by a motorcycle.

“We are encouraging ladies to travel in pairs or groups when clubbing or partying. This may decrease the risk of being targeted when leaving alone or when collecting their car from a dimly lit parking lot.”

According to Toni Daniels there is no blueprint describing how people respond to sexual assault.

Ms Daniels, who headed the volunteer support team for the Sexual Assault Response Team until 2004, has offered support to dozens of women who have fallen prey to sex attacks during her 18 years as a volunteer.

“There could be someone who has gone through a traumatic incident that seems very controlled or someone that is in shock and can’t speak or can’t think. Everyone processes things differently. Sometimes it takes a couple of days for people to react, some get angry, some don’t.

“It’s a lot like death or grief, everyone processes it differently.”

During her time with the Women’s Resource Centre’s crisis hotline, Ms Daniels saw that year after year the number of people using the service increased. In response, the amount of resources to help survivors also continued to grow.

“Unfortunately the statistics for incidences of violence have also increased, but it may be relative to the fact that these services are available and more known to be available,” she said.

Ms Daniels said women from all socio-economic backgrounds, including young, old, black, white, working single mothers and unemployed women to corporate executives have fallen prey to sexual attacks. Bermuda is no different from other countries in the world experiencing a broad range of different assaults against women, she said.

In her experience some women had been assaulted after drugs were slipped into their drinks; others had been attacked by strangers while walking in isolated areas, such as parks; and some had been assaulted after someone broke into their home.

Once a counsellor arrives, it is their job to inform the survivor of their options and “fully support and comfort them if necessary and without judgment through that time”.

This could include organising details like getting women additional clothing if needed or informing them of the pros and cons of pressing criminal charges.

For some survivors, this can be an arduous and invasive process, including the gathering of DNA evidence, which could lead to the prosecution of a perpetrator, and assessing the survivor’s injuries for treatment.

“Most survivors understand and consent to the necessity for the same,” she said, adding that some just want to get showered and go home and curl up under their blanket.

Police typically take a statement within hours of the assault when the survivor’s memory is fresh.

However, some people remember additional details a few days later after something triggers their memory. For others after a few days their memory starts to go very fuzzy and information starts to get lost, explained Ms Daniels.

She said the healing process was different for each woman and said there were a whole range of psychological effects that survivors could suffer from, including depression and suicidal thoughts.

She stressed there was no set pattern and said some women did not experience those feelings at all.

Others do for a short period and some continue to deal with the after effects of the assault for months and years.

“There are different degrees of healing,” she said, adding that there is no bench mark for how to process healing.

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Published Apr 11, 2011 at 8:00 am (Updated Apr 11, 2011 at 8:47 am)

All women are vulnerable to sexual assault

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