Charlotte Harding visits a rape crisis centre to find out about the work it does.
Natalie Brook, centre manager at Rape Crisis Surrey and Sussex has a stark message: “Sexual violence and abuse can happen to anyone regardless of ethnicity, age, what they were wearing or how much they had to drink.”
Through her work at the centre, Natalie is keen to dispel the myths surrounding sexual violence and abuse.
“There is this perception that it is a girl on a night out getting attacked in an alleyway by a stranger,” she says.
“But 90 per cent of cases are by someone they know in a familiar setting.
“People don’t always report it as they don’t feel they fit the image of what a rape victim looks or acts like, and a jury is made up of members of the public who may also have these same views, which can be hard to combat.”
The services offered at the Crawley-based centre include trauma counsellors, advocates and outreach workers who will go out to those who, because of their circumstances – be that mental health issues or those related to drugs or alcohol abuse – cannot access services at the centre.
“We offer support and help them deal with what they have been through,” she explains.
“If they do wish to report it to the police we have the independent advocate who can talk them through everything as it can be a long and complicated process. We help them from when they report it to if it goes to court.
“We have recently incorporated a new service raising awareness of FGM (female genital mutilation) and offering support to those affected by it through counselling and support groups.”
The centre opened in 2014 as it was seen that there was a need in the area. It is run as a women-only (both clients and staff) service, and works with girls and women aged 13 and above.
“One in five will experience some form of sexual or abuse in their lifetime, but only one in 15 people who experience it report it to the police,” reveals Natalie.
“We have seen a number of people who were abused years ago come to us for support, and this is because of the media and high-profile cases like Jimmy Savile.
“It either brings back those memories or it helps people to feel they will be believed.
“We have helped more than 800 women and girls in the last two years.”
Initially set up using money from the Ministry of Justice, it now relies on donations and, alongside paid, trained professionals, is run by volunteers.
“It is about giving these women and girls power and control,” she explains.
“What they have been through is traumatic and very rarely does it have a sexual motive, but is about someone taking power and control over someone else.”
A key principle at the centre is that everyone who contacts them is believed and everything they say is confidential, so if they don’t want to report the incident to the police, it won’t be.
“We never judge,” says Natalie.
“We call them survivors as they have survived something horrific.
“Sexual violence and abuse should be less about blaming women and more about looking at the perpetrator.”
Growing up in Haywards Heath, Natalie initially started working with Rape Crisis in Oxford as a volunteer before moving back to Sussex.
The Crawley centre covers West Sussex and parts of Kent such as Tunbridge Wells, and works alongside the national helpline and a number of other centres around the UK.
“I always get asked how I can do my job but we are the positive side,” she explains.
“We aim to empower these women and girls and help them to regain control.
“We see a positive change in these women and it is a great feeling to be able to give something back and do positive work after something traumatic has happened.”
You can call the national freephone number (0808 802 999) every day of the year from noon until 2.30pm, 3pm until 5.30pm or 7pm until 9.30 Monday to Friday;, and from noon until 2.30pm or 7pm until 9.30pm on weekends.
For more information and to see what services are available in your area, visit www.rcsas.org.uk
As this is a women-only service, male survivors are recommended to contact Survivors UK, www.survivorsuk.org
This first featured in the July edition of etc Magazine pick up your copy now.