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Sexual assault becoming ‘pervasive’ in Bermuda

Sexual assault is “pervasive” in Bermuda, according to one leading island social worker.

Laurie Shiell-Smith, executive director of the Centre Against Abuse, said that the organisation began using the #MeToo campaign to “let other survivors know that they are not alone”.

The movement went viral on social media earlier this week and allowed victims to share their stories to draw attention to the widespread issue of sexual assault and harassment.

The move followed a string of allegations of sexual abuse by Hollywood producer and former studio executive Harvey Weinstein.

Ms Shiell-Smith said CAA encouraged survivors to share “what they can when they are ready”.

She added: “I know of several individuals who have spoken about some of their story on social media about their sexual assault, and had several people reveal to them privately that the same thing happened to them.”

“They feel relaxed to come out to people whom they see understand where they are, and can empathise with them. They no longer feel all alone.”

Ms Shiell-Smith said the number of people using the hashtag was uplifting and unsettling at the same time.

She explained: “It is heartbreaking to see so many people have had to endure this atrocity, but it is empowering because they are using their voice to say that this is not my shame to bear any longer.”

Ms Shiell-Smith added that sex assault and harassment were all too common on the island.

She said: “Sexual assault is pervasive in Bermuda. It happens in the home, workplace, on the street and in various public arenas.”

Ms Shiell-Smith added sexual assault was “any non-consensual sexual act”.

She said: “Sexual assault may refer to rape, attempted rape, incest, molestation or other acts of sexual intrusion, including non-physical or verbal acts of violence.”

Numbers provided by police in April showed an increase in sexual assault reports in recent years.

Police said that 40 sexual assaults were reported in 2016, up from 35 in 2015, and 30 in 2014.

The crime statistics report for last year recorded twenty-three arrests for sex assault.

But Ms Shiell-Smith said that official statistics were just the tip of the iceberg.

She explained: “Often assaults happen in the workplace that may not even get to human resources and if they do, human resources do not have a central place to report statistics.

“Assaults happen on the street just in passing, and you don’t know who that person is that assaulted you, and you don’t know how to report it, while some people are very fearful to report.”

She added that shame, fear of reprisal, or feelings of responsibility for being victimised were all reasons for under-reporting of sex offences.

Ms Shiell-Smith said: “Then there are others who don’t realise that they’ve been raped, as they don’t understand that their ‘yes’ should not be forced or coerced in any manner.”

She added that the way sexual assaults are often discussed — with the responsibility on possible victims to behave differently, rather than on the perpetrator — is part of the problem.

Ms Shiell-Smith said: “Often times we are taught early in life to stay away from ‘the dirty old man’ or that ‘fresh person’.

“This type of talk instils in us from young that the onus is on the potential victim, that the responsibility is theirs to avoid being victimised.

“The sexual predator needs to be held accountable.”

She added that victims had to have their stories believed and supported to recover from their ordeals.

Ms Shiell-Smith said: “We need to allow the survivor to decide their course of action, and also provide education, direction and guidance to support them through their entire process.

“We need to support survivors when they use their voice to tell their story.”

Ms Shiell-Smith added the CAA offered help for victims irrespective of when an assault happened.

She said: “CAA provides services for survivors who were assaulted yesterday and for those who were assaulted as children and are now adults and wish to receive support. Your voice does matter.”

And Ms Shiell-Smith said the #MeToo campaign “is about solidarity, it is about removing a mask, it is about encouragement, it is about starting a conversation that has been hidden for far too long”.