I never wanted to go to Coventry. I’ll be honest, I thought this whole episode was set in Croydon. I didn’t realise my mistake until I read ‘give us a ring when you get to Cov station and I’ll pick you up.’ I had said any day but Monday, because I am shit at Mondays. But she must have skim read it because she replied ‘Monday is fine.’
Oh well, if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing in the worst case scenario.
I was going to meet a woman called Sarah Jane Learmonth who works at the Coventry Rape And Sexual Abuse Centre (CRASAC). She wrote to me in April 2009 saying ‘I would very much like a copy of KnockBack for our clients to read while they wait to see a counselor.’ She asked if they qualified for free copies. Naturally they did. A few weeks later I got another message. ‘Just a note to thank you, I could hear the ladies snorting with laughter in the waiting room today and that’s a first. ’ Praise indeed.
Since that exchange Sarah has posted a bazillion things on KB’s facebook wall. But despite the harrowing subject matter, she manages to maintain an air of good humour. I asked her to write a ‘day in the life of’ to try and understand better what she does, but it went something like, ‘I get up, have a cup of tea, 2000 women and children in the UK are raped or abused and I go to work.’ Like, holy crap lady how do you get out of bed in the morning?
Rape is a topic we’ve always skirted around at KB, and I’ll tell you why-it’s because it is fucking bleak. I find it easier to ignore the stats and hope they never apply to me. Evidently, most people feel the same way. I decided it was time to give credit where it was due, visit CRASAC and see if there was some way we could use KB for good. That’s how I found myself that Monday morning on a freezing train to Coventry where I was quick to discover that I was totally out of my depth.
Picking me up from the station, Sarah launched straight in. The problem, she told me primarily, is that people don’t like talking about the problem. Other types of crime are easier to talk about and thus get more press (and more funding). Rape is an ugly thing, confined to hushed tones and disbelief.
Shockingly, 1 in 4 people experience rape, sexual assault or sexual abuse. There’s a new victim every ten minutes. There are 2,000 rapes a week in the UK and 10,000 sexual assaults. It is further reaching than most people would care to believe. In an article for Progressive Women, Sarah writes ‘More women and girls are raped in the UK than suffer diabetes or coronary heart disease, but the level of support for victims is nowhere near the same.’
Changing laws takes a long time and a lot of gumption and changing attitudes takes expensive advertising, extensive education and discussion in an open forum. For now, it’s an issue that remains in the shadows and that protects perpetrators and isolates victims.
We pulled up to a predictably grey municipal building where Sarah introduced me to the Independent Sexual Violence Advisors (ISVA’s), a counsellor, the centre manager (who deserves an article of her own) and a survivor (not a victim).
The survivor I met was impassive – she talked about her experience in terms of the support she received from CRASAC. She talked about the process she went through from first contacting them through the helpline, to a successful prosecution. She told me that without CRASAC, she would never have prosecuted and she may not have survived at all.
She says they saved her life, and I believe her.
Her story shook me. Not just the gory details but also the aftermath, the part CRASAC call ‘secondary trauma’, which is reporting the crime to the police. The survivor I met said the prosecution had asked her why, as one of five sisters, it was her that was systematically abused for 10 years. She replied, ‘you’d have to ask him’. The question made me feel sick.
It seemed glaringly obvious to me that victims of sexual crime deserve highly sensitive, specialist support and the people qualified to offer it deserve a medal, or at least decent pay. The average wage at CRASAC is similar to that of a low-level receptionist. Most people wouldn’t answer the phone properly for that kind of cash. The majority of the clients are referred to CRASAC via the police or other local services, yet only a third of their income comes from local governments. Those services also rely on CRASAC for training in how to deal with situations involving a victim of sexual violence. Usually the people receiving the training are paid to attend. More often than not the staff of CRASAC are expected to provide it for free.
In the face of adversity these people, often volunteers, are fighting tooth and nail to stay open so that they can continue supporting the people who need them. Alongside providing a lifeline for survivors, CRASAC offer training for volunteers to become qualified ISVA’s. The ISVA’s that I met earn less than an entry-level teacher.
Having a bad teacher can be damaging, but having a sexual violence case handled badly could be the last straw for survivors. CRASAC and similar groups across the country support people who’ve suffered rape or sexual violence and without them the stats for reporting the crime would fall dramatically, and the victims might never come forward at all. It should also be noted that people who don’t receive specialist support often end up in the system anyway, as mental health sufferers, drug and alcohol abusers and prisoners.
With the funding cut CRASAC were facing at time of print (and are seemingly never far from), they were going to lose 50% of their counsellors and the waiting time to see someone would go from 6-8 weeks to up to 12 months. The concern they conveyed was not for their workload. More, they were worried that people who had to wait that long would never become survivors.
Sarah is the Policy Officer for CRASAC. She’s from a corporate background and she speaks the language of funding. She uses words like ‘deliverables’ and ‘governance’. She works full-time to help keep the centre from the brink of closure, trying to develop links with the community, raise awareness of the service and reach out to the people who need it.
It’s a full time job full of frustrations, red tape and obstacles, and she does it for free.
Sarah and her colleagues are without a doubt the most hardcore people I’ve met in my capacity as editor of KB. Without them literally thousands of people would suffer intolerable situations alone. They shouldn’t need to rely on charitable donations, but they do. Thanks to their hard work Coventry has one of the best funded (rah) and most reputable centres in the country and they’re leading the way in the fight for better services nationwide. I am awed by their commitment to their clients and hope that this article goes someway to showing our profound respect for what they do.