Survivors’ project in Portugal: New challenges in the fight against sexual violence

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.

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Interview with M., a 35- year old survivor of intimate partner violence from Slovenia

Can you tell me something about your experience with violence?

I got pregnant very soon, after four months of being together with B. When I was a child, I had an image of the perfect family, a picture of a complete group: a father, a mother and a child; I thought that a family had to stick together no matter what. That’s why I decided to stay in the relationship, although I soon realized things were not the way they should be. It was incredibly hard; he was very violent … For example, he dragged me around the courtyard, kicked me in the head, really hard … I was never able to talk to our child G. about it. I told him it was just a game. I didn’t know how to explain things to him. B. was always telling me that I couldn’t be with anyone else; that he would have killed us both if that had happened. I thought I would end up in a mental institution; I felt as if I had been brainwashed. He didn’t let me work and earn my own money; he just wanted me to be at home. However, I really like working, I like having my own money, being independent.

So I managed to find a job I could do from home. I remember when we were already separated and I went out for a coffee with my friends, how I was expecting that he would call, like he always did, and start insulting me, saying things like “where the hell are you, bitch”. Then I said to myself, “Wow, I can drink coffee with my friends.” I’d never had such freedom before. You think it’s normal that he expects you to be at home all the time because you have a small child. Then soon the child turns three and you find out you barely have any friends left.

He was also telling me what to wear, whom to talk to and whom not. I wasn’t myself anymore. However, I left him when I realized I was in real danger. Well, I guess I’d known that before, but he kept telling me he’d kill me if I left. But then … He put his gun to my head and I realized that I would die if I stayed and I said to myself, “Just go!”

Did you get any help when you decided to leave him?

Well, I’d been planning it for a long time, gathering information. So much had already happened and I decided to call a safe house. I found the number on the internet. I’d already talked to my friends about the things that were going on so they told me about a safe house. If you don’t tell anyone, you can’t get any information. I’d also seen some posters with information on violence helplines. So, I called the safe house and inquired about it. Of course you’re scared, you have no idea what that place is like and you’re afraid to take a child there. So, I called, explained everything and the woman on the phone said I should come immediately and I told her I still needed some time to think about it. I was afraid of getting a joint custody if I were to leave. Then I wouldn’t be able to take care of the child. B. also drank a lot and I was afraid that the child would fall or something and B. wouldn’t notice because he would be sitting in a bar. So, I told myself I’d rather suffer for the next 15 years until the child is grown up and able to take care of himself than leave him alone with his daddy. Because everyone was saying that you get a joint custody until you prove differently. So I didn’t know how to get out of the relationship and at the same time ensure the child was safe.

How did you manage to end the relationship with B.?

First, it was late spring, I started to gather information and slowly move my stuff to my parents’ place in a way that he didn’t notice. In December that year we had an office party. In the last six years I’ve been out twice. Once, I had a school reunion and when I came back home he didn’t let me in. The second time I went out, he was really furious when I came back; he was throwing out all my stuff. Therefore, when I returned from that office party I was really surprised that I could get inside the house; but there was no electricity. And then V., his son from his first marriage, comes and tells me “B. is really drunk and he turned off the electricity.” So, I went to the bathroom and B. woke up and came after me. He pushed me into a bathtub and took away my phone. I was always hiding my stuff, my purse for example, because he was stealing money from me. I was really afraid for the things I needed for work, like my computer and telephone; that was my job. He knew that, so he always took my phone and threw it away.

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