Nexus launched our break the silence campaign last year as part of sexual violence and abuse awareness week (the week falls this year between the 5-12 of February). The campaign’s aim is to do exactly as it says and break the silence on sexual violence across Northern Ireland.
For us, this includes breaking down the misconceptions, societal taboos and barriers for victims. We have been delivering services in Northern Ireland for more than 30 years, last year our counselling service alone delivered 17,000 sessions of specialist counselling. Today, we are seeing more referrals for our counselling than we ever have before (an average of 150 new referrals per month), we are seeing more people talk about sexual violence than ever before and yet, our service remains underfunded and under supported.
The Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Jimmy Saville and other cases as well as the #MeToo campaign have all gone some way to highlighting just how prolific these crimes are. But there is, unfortunately still more to do. Because of course, it isn’t enough to increase awareness, we also need to educate people, our young people particularly. We need our government to invest appropriately in the specialist services that these victims need. We need to have effective criminal justice systems which are supportive to victims, and lead to appropriate convictions. We need to have conversations not only about Hollywood, and celebrity, but about all of us, people who live and work in Northern Ireland and might have been affected by this. Only by being open and honest do we stand a chance of actually challenging it.
Outside of Hollywood, in Northern Ireland the reported figures are increasing, there are on average 200 plus sexual offences reported to PSNI each month. In the last full year there were over 3,000. However, this isn’t a true picture of the prevalence of the crimes. We know anecdotally that many victims do not engage with criminal justice for many reasons. For many, its simply fear, for others the thought of spending potentially years waiting for a decision, reliving a hugely traumatic time and having to tell even more people that you do not know about it with absolutely no guarantee that you will see a conviction at the end of it. In short, many victims say it just isn’t worth it.
There are, beyond the making noise element of this campaign, other areas that our break the silence campaign is working toward. Getting appropriate investment being one of the most important. The reality is that services are underfunded and have been for many years. The unfortunate result of this underfunding is that, particularly when there are more public conversations encouraging people to come forward, victims are asked to wait.
Empowering victims is another priority for us. We want to empower victims, and those who are not victims, to talk about it, properly. It is about encouraging our governmental departments to look at how they are investing in these services, and if that investment isn’t right, to try and fix it in conversations with the services affected.
We need to educate people, within our schools, so that our young people have access to fact-based education around health sexual relationships. Outside of school we need to educate the general populous about the fact that sexual violence is happening, that is it happening to men, women and children across this province.
We hope that this campaign will continue with the momentum it has already gained and we are looking forward to a busy Sexual Violence and Abuse Awareness week this year, with the highlight being a key note address from Sammy Woodhouse, one of the survivors of the Rotherham abuse scandal.
Cara Cash is the Chief Executive of Nexus NI, Northern Ireland’s only specialist charity offering support and accredited counselling to victims of sexual violence and abuse as well as education, training and outreach programs to the wider public and professional field.