Executive director Corinna Lim’s speech at SABS launch
On November 25, AWARE officially launched the Sexual Assault Befrienders Service (SABS) after a 6-month pilot period. The following is the speech given by AWARE Executive Director Corinna Lim at the launch event.
Our Guest of Honour, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Law, Mr Shanmugam, members of the press, friends of AWARE:
Good morning everyone.
Mr Shanmugam, thank you for supporting the launch of the Sexual Assault Befrienders Service today. We know you have a very busy schedule and we are really glad that the Government is taking the issue of sexual assault seriously. It is a much overlooked area which requires some attention.
Being sexually assaulted is a terrifying experience for a woman whatever her level of sexual experience. The aftermath can be almost as traumatic, if one has to go through this alone.
I would like to quote the experience of a woman who has given us permission to share her story. She was a tourist outside Singapore when the incident happened . She came to see us for advice on how she could seek justice . We put her in touch with lawyers in the country where it happened and this started a chain of events which eventually led to the capture of a serial rapist:
“What I found most challenging after the assault, was the fact that exactly when you are most impacted and impaired by the incident, you have to go through further invasions which involve making crucial and far-reaching decisions. You have to get medical treatment for the injuries, address the risk of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, decide if you want to report the incident to the police and, if you wish to proceed with police action, you have to get the DNA samples from your private parts. And ideally, all of this should happen as soon as possible and no later than 72 hours after the incident.”
Women have called the AWARE helpline 5 years, 10 years and even 16 years, after they were sexual assaulted, to talk about what happened. Time did not heal their wounds. They were still suffering from panic attacks, flashblacks and nightmares. And some were depressed. Sometimes their partners or boyfriends, desperate to find a solution, called us for help.
These Helpline cases indicated to us that many victims did not have the support they needed after the assault to find closure and to move on.
It is these very cold calls – in rape vocabulary, anything beyond the first 72 hours is considered cold – that prompted us to create the Sexual Assault Befriender Service – a specialized, comprehensive support service for sexual assault survivors.
In May this year, we launched the Sexual Assault Befriender Service or SABS (for short).
What is SABS?
SABS comprises a dedicated Helpline, counselling, legal counselling and Befriending services.
These are all services that we offer for other types of cases. However, the SABS Helpline runs from 10 am to 9.30 pm, longer hours than our regular Helpline which operates from 3 pm to 930 pm.
SABS clients get to see our legal counsellor within three days (depending on the urgency) instead of waiting 2 weeks for our Legal Clinic.
We can send a SABS Befriender down to the police station almost immediately, if necessary.
Also, we follow up with the client a lot more actively, keeping in touch with them to see how they are doing and following up on their police case.
To carry out the SABS pilot, we equipped 7 Befrienders and 4 counsellors with specialized information and skills to provide support for sexual assault victims. These were people who had already gone through Helpline training or were professional counsellors. So, they had a basic background in providing emotional support.
We also set up a new section of resources on our website, where we offer the most comprehensive information available on rape in Singapore.
The objectives of the pilot were:
- To assess the demand for such a service
- To assess what we might need to roll out the service fully
- To develop our experience working with sexual assault victims, supporting them through the medico-legal processes
- To find out what issues might arise in providing this service.
We did not publicise this service in the media. We announced it on our website and to our database.
The results of the pilot told us there is a real need for SABS.
During the six-month pilot, we received 24 calls about sexual abuse cases i.e. rape, molest, extortion. This is roughly double the number of sexual abuse calls that we usually receive on our regular Helpline over a six-month period.
Of the 24 calls received, 14 were rape cases.
We met with 10 of the 24 callers and provided them with counselling, befriending and/or legal counselling services.
So, yes, there was a demand in terms of numbers.
More importantly, there was a demand in terms of the amount of help needed for each case. The demand on our team was much more intense than what is required in supporting non-SABS cases.
Some clients came in twice a week to see our counsellor.
Legal counselling usually took 1.5 hours instead of 30 minutes. Befriending would typically take 3 – 5 hours per visit.
So, it is a lot of hours of support for one person. But if this is what it takes to help a sexual assault survivor to heal and recover rather than to go through years or a lifetime of self-blame, fear, anxiety, self-abuse and depression, it is more than worth it.
What we need to roll out
A new counselling room, given the number of contact hours. We will be renovating our back room for this purpose.
An additional social worker to manage this service.
A dedicated SABS number.
More volunteers to be trained as Befrienders.
Outreach and publicity, mainly through working with partners. We hope to partner with the Police and hospitals in particular, to reach out to “hot” cases (cases in the first 72 hours).
We need to get the word out in the media, the Internet, to other VWOs and to the public in general that there is now a specialized service for this.
We need money to fund all this. We would like to thank the Margaret Mary Wearnes Charitable Trust and the Chen Su Lan Trust for ensuring that we have funding to provide this service for a year. But of course, we need more money for longer sustainability.
I would like to talk briefly about three things:
Most rape is acquaintance rape, and more often than not it is date rape. To give you an idea – of the 34 rape calls that we received on our Helpline over the past two years, where information about the relationship between the perpetrator and the victim was made available to us, there was only 1 case in which the woman was raped by a stranger. In all the other cases, the rapists were people the victims knew.
Date rape is especially confusing for the victim as there is some level of consent to the situation and there is often an issue of evidence.
Even though the victim did not consent to the sexual penetration, she may have consented to meeting the accused at a late hour alone, to drinking and often to a certain degree of intimacy with the perpetrator, short of sexual intercourse. Although she is clear that she did not consent to sex, she feels partly responsible for the situation.
In date rape cases, we will provide the victim with information as to how the law defines rape and consent. We will support her to deal with feelings of guilt and shame, and sometimes, the adverse judgments of her family and friends.
Our role as Helpliners, Befrienders and Counsellors in the case of a date rape is to be empathetic and supportive.
We say “It’s not your fault” and we work from there.
As a Befriender, I have seen with my own eyes the difference these words “It’s not your fault” make to a sexual assault survivor. They can be life-saving.
The Police are generally the first point of contact for sexual assault victims. In Singapore, a rape victim will have to
make a police report before she can get a Rape Kit done at the hospital. A Rape Kit is the collection of DNA samples for forensic testing.
When the victim first goes to the Police station, she is usually in a state of trauma and confusion. The Police thus have an extremely challenging role as they have to take a report on highly sensitive and personal matters from victims when they are at their most distressed.
A negative experience at this critical stage may re-traumatize the victim and/or deter the victim from proceeding with the report or the prosecution.
This is where the Befriender can be of enormous help to the victim and the Police. Based on our experience of working with sexual assault victims, we believe that our Befrienders’ support of the victims will assist the Police in carrying out their investigative roles more effectively while, at the same time, ensure that the victim receives the emotional support that she needs during this time.
The Police have to be impartial fact finders. They cannot be the people to tell the victim “It’s not your fault”. But the victim is at a stage where she really needs to be believed and supported, and our Befriender can play this role.
The Minister has kindly facilitated a meeting between AWARE and the Police to discuss this next month and we sincerely hope that we will be able to work out an arrangement with the Police whereby we can be there to support the victims from the time they make the police report.
The low rate of reporting
Of the 24 calls that came in during the SABS pilot period, only 6 victims had made police reports.
This is not surprising. It stems from a few factors. In the case of date rape, victims are not sure if a crime has taken place, are afraid of not being believed, feel that they have no evidence or are too ashamed to bring it up.
Victims may also be fearful of victim-blaming – factors such as how they dressed and behaved and their past sexual history may be used against them.
When we started to research rape laws and procedures, we came across Section 157(d) of the Evidence Act, which allows a woman’s past ‘immoral’ history to be used against her. The law had in fact codified victim blaming.
We approached the Minister about this and I am happy to say that he will be announcing some good news about this issue a little later.
We are most heartened by how open and responsive the Government has been to our feedback in this area. We look forward to a closer engagement between civil society and the government.
I will end with another quote from the same survivor that I quoted before:
“ I did not have the knowledge, experience, or -after what had happened- the self-assurance to proceed but the fact that I did, with the emotional and professional support of AWARE, is the very reason that today I can face life at eye level again. ……Considering the shame, humiliation and helplessness that the victims often experience, I think it is important to look at SABS not as a charitable service but as a necessary institution that can make all the difference when it matters most.”
So, this is the start of a long process. AWARE celebrates its 26th birthday today. We have with us our past presidents, Constance Singam and Dana Lam, and founding member, Margaret Thomas, to share this special day. We are also joined by some members of the SABS team and many other committed volunteers who have contributed their talents and time to AWARE.
We hope to be around for another 26 years, and then some. For the immediate future, our aim is to make sure that survivors of sexual assault know that they can turn to SABS for immediate help and support, and do not have to struggle alone with their pain for months or years.m