In rural Victoria, sexual assault cases are especially prominent. April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, which brings the stark reminder of this reality to the surface.
Coordinator of the Sexual Assault and Family Violence Centre (SAFVC) in the Wimmera region, Jo-Anne Bates, said that there is a huge demand for the therapeutic counselling services they provide.
Between 2019 and 2020, 634 clients received support from the SAFVC in the Wimmera region. Those seeking help for sexual assault comprised 51 per cent of those clients.
There is a tendency for people to disregard this prevalence, however, often not believing it happens in rural places.
“Having campaigns and getting people to listen creates a shift and lets people know this is happening,” Ms Bates said.
Over one-third of those who contact the SAFVC are seeking support for historic sexual assault trauma, which refers to incidents having occurred more than 12 months ago.
“It’s very much about empowering the person who has made their disclosure, allowing them to make their own choices, allowing them to decide what they need and want,” she continued.
There are distinct challenges that sexual assault survivors face, which are unique to living in an isolated location. The opportunity for the perpetrator to maintain control is greater, access to alternative accommodation is difficult, and conflicts of interest occur, with both parties often seeking the same solicitor.
“[Some] survivors have never had the opportunity to make a disclosure, because the perpetrator may be local, and they’ve been threatened that their lives, their children, or their pets will be killed or harmed if they do”Jo-Anne Bates
“Perpetrators, unfortunately, say that no one will believe them and often that is the case when they do come forward, as we know.
Ms Bates also said that when one does disclose their experience, they are often shamed into doing so, in an effort to be believed.
Perpetrators are commonly a survivors’ partner. One in four Australian women has experienced physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner since the age of 15.
“When a person has been sexually assaulted, whether that was twenty years ago or ten days ago… to come forward is huge. That first step in ringing our service takes a lot of courage, and we acknowledge and respect that“Jo-Anne Bates
A 2016 Personal Safety Survey revealed that of all women who have experienced violence from an intimate partner since the age of 15, only 54 per cent had sought advice or support and 82 per cent had never contacted authorities.
SAFVC also run prevention programs, to help educate the community in their understanding of what sexual assault is. Cases of sexual assault are individually unique and the SAFVC advocate that they should never be compared. There is not a scale which says a case is worse than another, all experiences are harmful and impactful to survivors, Ms Bates said.
The prevalence of sexual assault has not diminished in Ms Bates’ 25 years in the field. Until the government accepts that this is about gender equality and respecting women across all parts of life, she believes this cycle will continue.