Specialized support services for victims of sexual violence are lacking in the majority of European Union countries, and Portugal is no exception. Despite the high rate of rape cases and abuse towards women and children, there are no rape crisis centres and specialized services for survivors in Portugal. The Association of Women Against Violence (AMCV) is taking action to open the first rape crisis centre and implementing the WAVE Step Up! Campaign. Moreover, new programs and initiatives have been launched, such as Hypatia, a self-representative group of survivors of gender-based violence (GBV). One of the participants shared with us her experience as a survivor of sexual violence and the important support she received from this service.
Could you share with us your experience in terms of searching and accessing specialized services in the field of sexual violence?
In the beginning I felt lost and afraid. I felt that there was no information available and I did not know what to do. I felt completely isolated, as if I had been caught up in some sort of hole. When I suffered the violent act, I called the police who accompanied me to the Institute of Forensic Medicine (IML) to undergo the forensic examination. Neither the police nor the IML gave me the contact details of any specialized organization that could help me get some support. After the complaint and forensic examination, I was completely alone and I felt desperate. It was a painful process. I was ashamed to tell what had happened to me and I did not feel supported at that early stage.
At the IML I felt as if I was being assaulted once again. I felt very uncomfortable being examined by a man − having to show him my body and being touched by him. He was a very cold and distant person− he did what he had to do without explaining anything to me. He ordered me to do things mechanically. It was painful process, as the examination was performed will little care and consideration for my needs. I would have liked to have been accompanied by someone I could trust, but I was unaware whether this was possible. And I wish I had been referred to a specialized organization in this field.
How did you learn about the existence of AMCV? And what kind of support did they offer you?
A community organization that I know gave me the contact details of a general victim support organization. In turn, this organization gave me the contact details of AMCV, explaining that they offered a specialized service in this field. I called to schedule a counselling session since I needed help. I could not be alone throughout this process. I shared what had happened to me with some close friends. It was important but not enough. I know that many victims only seek help later on, because it is very painful and they just want to be alone and hide from everything and everyone.
Since then I have been supported on a regular basis by AMCV. The support is focused on my different needs. This is a very positive aspect. The police and the IML played an important part related to the crime itself and the legal proceedings, but this does not meet the needs of someone who has been subjected to sexual violence. In such cases it is important to benefit from specialist support that can cover all your needs and the need to feel that someone is close to you.
In the beginning, it was very complicated to attend the service; I distrusted everything and everyone. I was afraid to speak out and act. I was always “standing behind”. I even postponed some sessions because it was too painful to talk about what had happened. But not anymore. Now I always come and I never forget the sessions. Gradually, I realized that I could trust the professionals who only wanted to help me and give me strength to be able to bear the horrible situation I was in and fight for my rights. I could finally have some peace.
I thought of suicide several times. I thought I had no way out, that I could not bear so much pain any longer. But with the support of AMCV and the counsellor I developed my ability to act and think about what had happened. I stopped blaming myself and began to focus on my happiness, on my goals and rights. Today I know that the blame of what had happened to me lies only with the perpetrator − he is a criminal.
It was very important to know that whenever I wanted I could call AMCV and schedule a session to share my doubts and fears, as well as receive information about various issues, services, criminal proceedings and safety strategies. Above all else, it was important to know that I was not alone. With the passage of time I started to have more confidence in myself and in other people; that gave me strength and determination.