Opinion: Sexual assault services run on the smell of an oily rag - we must do better

These services, run predominantly for and by women, are shockingly underfunded
These services, run predominantly for and by women, are shockingly underfunded Photo credit: Image - Getty

OPINION: I don’t remember her name, but I remember the bruises on her face and the small cut under her left eye. I don’t remember where she’d been or details of what had happened to her, but I will forever remember the way she gingerly walked with a shuffling gait that so clearly said, “I’ve been hurt.”  

She was a rape survivor, there at that small after-hours clinic to undergo a forensic medical exam, critical to any police investigation and possible court case that might follow. I was an idealistic, 20-something feminist volunteer, recently graduated from university, working my first full-time job during the day and volunteering after hours for the Wellington Sexual Abuse Help Foundation.  

Usually that volunteering involved staffing a phone line, listening to callers talk about abuse they had suffered, often historic, sometimes recent. Occasionally we’d be required to attend forensic medical examinations. Our role was to offer comfort and support to the victim/survivor who had made a complaint to the police.

Yes, of course, I felt wholly inadequate in that role. How does a complete stranger offer support to a woman who, usually within the last 24 hours, has endured one of the most horrific events that can happen to us? I did my best to be a kind, supportive, background presence, offering whatever I could in those moments.  

Twenty-five years on I find myself disbelieving that volunteers would carry out that work. We were well-supported with supervision and debriefing opportunities, but still, we were minimally trained unpaid staff, there to support people at one of the most critical and painful points in their lives. Why? Because sexual violence is gendered and the women’s services that respond to sexual violence have a long history of chronic underfunding.

These days Wellington Sexual Abuse Help Foundation has paid staff that carry out the work I did 25 years ago as a volunteer. With increasing awareness of movements like #Metoo and many other social media challenges to rape culture here and around the world, there is rising demand for their services. But they, like many other services run predominantly for and by women, are still shockingly underfunded. This year they needed to fundraise over $240,000 just to provide their basic services.

Sexual violence affects one in three girls under the age of 16, one in five women and one in seven men will experience sexual abuse in New Zealand. We know the statistics are even worse for those from Maori, migrant, Pasifika and rainbow backgrounds. We also know the overwhelming majority of the perpetrators are male.

In 2013 the Social Services Committee of the New Zealand Parliament initiated an inquiry into the very issue of the funding of specialist sexual violence social services. The December 2015 report of that committee noted that “specialist first response services are very important”. They also noted that “limited, unstable funding, a large volunteer workforce, variable quality guidelines and a lack of training are all issues that affect the sector”.  

Most tellingly the report identified that “Government funding does not meet the full cost of services”. The report also noted that demand for services was increasing. That inquiry made 32 very good recommendations to improve funding and service delivery in the sexual violence service system. What has happened since? Sadly, not much.

The truth is frontline sexual assault services - the Rape Crisis Centres, Sexual Abuse Help Foundations and Kaupapa Maori women’s services - have operated for decades not on the smell of an oily rag, but the smell of the smell of an oily rag. It is through a large volunteer workforce of feminist women and a small underpaid workforce of women that these essential services have kept going.

They commonly rely on their own fundraising efforts, private donors and philanthropy to provide critical services that any one of us – or our loved ones – could need at some point in our lives.

This piecemeal, fragmented approach to funding essential services must stop. We need a fully government-funded, coordinated, integrated sexual violence services system that responds to the needs of sexual assault victims and survivors. This must include adequate funding for kaupapa Maori models of service provision and services that can meet the specific needs of Pasifika and newly arrived refugee and migrant victim/survivors, and members of rainbow communities.

We may have come some way from the service model that I was part of as a volunteer in the 1990s, but if we are truly going to meet the growing demand and respond to the needs of survivors when they need it most, we must do better. And we can.

Georgie Ferrari is a social justice advocate and feminist. She works in the philanthropy sector in Wellington