Shining a spotlight on the National Rape Crisis Helpline
In 1985, a group of enterprising women in Croydon realised that there was no specialist support for local women who had experienced sexual violence outside of an abusive relationship. Thousands of women who had been raped by friends or strangers or sexually abused as children had nowhere to turn to. Understanding the power of speaking out and shedding the shame which so often shrouds sexual violence, these women set up what is now the Rape and Sexual Abuse Support Centre, providing telephone support several hours a week out of a back room.
The organisation has grown exponentially since then, now providing long-term specialist counselling, advocacy support for women who have reported sexual violence to the police, outreach support to women who access non-specialist services and a training and prevention team who work with children, young people and adults across multi-agency settings to prevent sexual violence.
The helpline has also grown enormously, increasing its reach and accessibility by supporting women and girls across Great Britain and occasionally from abroad and being open every day of the year. On 1st February 2019 we introduced a yearlong pilot scheme which offers women and supporters of survivors a one off emotional and practical support call, lasting up to 40 minutes. This was in response to the high number of women reaching out for specialist support, with an aim to further increase accessibility to the helpline and allow more new callers to be able to receive support. Alongside providing emotional support, we can provide information of local services for ongoing support should someone wish for this. As we change and adapt to meet the needs of as many survivors as possible, the core and the heart of the helpline remains the same.
We work within an empowerment framework which is tailored to the needs of women who have experienced sexual violence themselves and/or to people who are supporting either professionally or informally, someone who has. We have developed this way of working over the 34 years we have been going through a combination of understanding sexual violence and listening to women’s experiences.
How do we work on the helpline and why do we do that way?
Sexual violence is about power and entitlement. Survivors of sexual violence have experienced someone having absolute power over them, someone removing their agency and ability to make choices. When a perpetrator commits an act or often acts of sexual violence, they are telling the survivor that they are not important and that their wants and needs don’t matter.
On the helpline we come from the opposite place to the perpetrator. We respect women’s’ wants and needs and ability to make choices. We come from a place of empathy and empowerment.
Empathy is about being alongside someone, understanding how she feels and where she is coming from. It is coming from a place of equal power, where we don’t make assumptions that we know best.
Empowerment is about recognising both the destructive impacts of sexual violence AND the incredible strength of women who keep on keeping on whilst living through these destructive impacts. On the helpline we acknowledge all of the amazing things that women are doing to keep going even through the darkest days.
We also respect women’s choices and decisions. Respecting that she knows her life in a way we don’t and never could, we explore what she wants to do or change rather than telling her what she needs to do. If we started telling her what to do, we would be implicitly telling her that we knew best and that she thought and wanted wasn’t important. If we started doing things for her, such as reporting to the police, we would be taking control and power away from her. This would be replicating what the perpetrator did.
Understanding that there is a lot of societal stigma around sexual violence, we offer a confidential space where survivors can talk about what they’ve been through, how these experiences have impacted them, how they’ve coped and how they truly feel without fear of judgement or control being removed.
At a time when we are seeing an unprecedented demand for specialist sexual violence support services, the National Rape Crisis Helpline offers some light amongst darkness for many women living their lives alongside their experiences of violence and abuse.
We provide a space where women can be totally themselves and be accepted as themselves. A space where the very worst things can be spoken about and there will be no judgement. We facilitate a space for survivors to stop judging themselves and start to believe in themselves and their futures again.
The National Rape Crisis Helpline (0808 802 9999) is free, confidential and open every day of the year, between 12-2.30pm and 7-9.30pm.