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Comment: Survivor-activist Fern Champion on the under-funding of Rape Crisis

23 Jan 2019

My name is Fern Champion and I am a survivor of rape. 

It occurs to me that even though I have spoken about my assault publicly many times now, having 'outed' myself as a survivor on national TV in July last year, I have rarely used those words to describe myself. That word. Rape. 

Those who are familiar with my story will know that it took me nearly two years to access the support I needed after my rape due to my inability to even get onto a waiting list, despite trying several times. I am now seeing an excellent trauma therapist but that is paid for privately through my employer, who I chose to disclose to when I very rapidly crashed through rock bottom after I had called a Rape Crisis Centre in March 2018 and been told, not for the first time, that their waiting list remain closed. 

I feel I have learnt a lot since speaking out about my assault and I want to speak honestly and openly now about those experiences and as I type this I think a good place to start is why I feel so avoidant of the 'R' word, because I don't think my feelings are that uncommon. 

I know my assault wasn't my fault. I feel it in my heart and my soul and every fibre of my being. I carry that anger with me every day and sometimes I feel so paralysed by it that I can barely focus on anything else. But I am still so ashamed.

Even the way I started this piece felt far more like a confession than it did a powerful ownership of something that I have now overcome because, truth be told, I haven't overcome it.

How can that be? How can I be shamed by something I don't blame myself for? I am nowhere near qualified enough to unpack the answers to that here but I do think that being denied support so many times for so long played a huge part in further internalising the shame that victims of sexual assault naturally internalise simply through growing up in a victim-blaming society.

By not adequately funding Rape Crisis support services, this Government, like so many before it, is telling survivors that their recovery does not matter and by extension that they do not matter, especially when you couple that with the criminal justice system's complete inability do right by those survivors and serve justice upon perpetrators of sexual violence.

I'm going to say it again because, frankly, it cannot be said enough. Rape is never the victim's fault and so it is absolutely absurd to me that we as a society would deny them the support services they need to recover from a trauma that can have long-lasting physical and mental implications. 

We need greater understanding of how vital those support services are to a survivor's recovery because what I have also learnt during this time is that recovery is hard. Trauma in itself is complex in terms of the way it affects the mind and body and many survivors, myself included, find they develop unhealthy coping mechanisms just to get by, especially when the help they need isn't immediately available to them.

Recovery from trauma isn't linear and it took me about 8 months of sustained, regular therapy to get me to a place where I feel resourced enough to begin confronting the self-destructive behaviour I had been shrouding myself in when no other help was available. For me, those go-to coping mechanisms were heavy nights of drinking. I want to use this opportunity to be frank about my own recovery process because it is long. It is hard.

There are times when I want to give up altogether because I can't see an end in sight. But I also know that I would be so much worse off now if I had not been receiving therapy over the last 10 months and so we must emphasise the importance of specialist, trauma therapy to a survivor's recovery. 

I chose to speak out because I wanted to use my experiences to try to make a difference and because I think we need more frank and honest discussion from the viewpoint of survivors. I am extremely fortunate to have worked with organisations such as Rape Crisis, within the specialist sexual violence and abuse support sector, which has led me to speaking on the Victoria Derbyshire Programme, giving verbal evidence at the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Sexual Violence in the Houses of Parliament, being interviewed for BBC Inside Out East Midlands, and being invited as a keynote speaker for the NHS and Ministry of Justice's Strategic Direction for Sexual Assault & Abuse Services launch event.

If I have learnt anything during this time it is that I really do have to be invested in the long-term outcome if I am ever going to see any real change. Because the truth is, very few people who are in a position of power want to listen. 

On 12 December 2018, the All-Party Parliamentary Group launched their report on the Funding and Commissioning of Sexual Violence and Abuse Services. Rape Crisis worked tirelessly to compile this report, which succinctly highlights the problems with the funding landscape and why Rape Crisis Centres all over the country are struggling to the point of closing their waiting lists. The report details its recommendations to the Government as to what urgent steps need to be taken now so that it can meet the commitment it made in its 2016 Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy that by 2020 'no victim will be turned away'. The evening was supposed to be an opportunity for MPs to hear the APPG's findings but only one turned up. Right in the last 30 seconds.

I have only been involved in the sector in a very minor way over the last 7 months and if I feel constantly beat down and exhausted by the lack of real-time funding and legislative progress - despite the fact Rape Crisis has quite literally done the Government's work for them over and over again in highlighting where the issues are and how they can be resolved and even broken it down into a brain-digestible 20-page report - then I cannot imagine how it must be for those who work in organisations like Rape Crisis day in, day out.

My heart is so full of love and admiration for those who continue to dedicate their lives to the fight for the rights of survivors of sexual violence in the face of such government and parliamentary disinterest and I hope that I can continue to use my voice to join that fight too. 

I want to reach out and thank all those who do work in organisations like Rape Crisis who fight for women like me. It has been such an honour to meet and work with those who I have met and I hope to meet more of you one day because I am truly grateful for the work that you do. I have always wanted to make it clear that I do not blame Rape Crisis, or any other organisation like it, for the lack of support out there for victims. Everybody who I have met during my involvement in the sector has been just as angry about the funding crisis as I am and that anger presents itself through your passion for the cause. Government after government has been holding you to ransom for years now by dictating and restricting the funding you can apply for, in a deliberate move to strip away funding from a service it simply doesn't care about. Thank you, from the very bottom of my heart, for fighting back. 

My name is Fern Champion and I am a survivor of rape. I hope that one day, through continuing to work with my therapist and the work that Rape Crisis does, just typing those words will no longer bring me to tears.