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.

Can you briefly tell us about your participation in the project “New Challenges in the Fight Against Sexual Violence”?

This project allowed me to have access to a specialized service in the field of sexual violence, and I was supported for more than a year. It also gave me the chance to participate in a self-representative group, where I shared my problems and needs with other women victims of violence. It has been very important for me, increasing my strength and confidence to achieve my goals. I have thought of stopping the criminal proceedings, but with their support I always gained strength to continue. I also think of other women victims now, and how important it is to complain and not to give up. Giving up means giving strength and more power to the perpetrators.

It was soothing to realize that the services and facilities offered by AMCV are safe and completely confidential. This gave me confidence to share my anxieties, without fearing that someone would be “pointing the finger at me”.

Do you believe that any improvements regarding access and type of services available to survivors of violence would be needed? If so, what?

There should be more information available, e.g. on television, community services. Women victims of sexual violence do not know where to go to. It is important that there are specialized services in this field and that this information reaches ordinary people. Services should not only be available in Lisbon (AMCV); women across the country should have access to this type of services as well.

I also think that the relevant different organizations should communicate more with each other. As I said, neither the police nor the IML have taken the initiative to cooperate with AMCV. I had to fight for my rights and decided not to remain quiet. But there are women out there who cannot reach out for support and are very lonely and isolated.

I also consider that it would be important for criminal enquiries to be centred around one entity and a key person. I often felt very confused and had to tell my story over and over again several times.

The service, especially the IML, should be more humane and these entities should realize that the victim needs other things such as clothes and food. In my case, when I went to testify, it took too long, and throughout the entire time I did not get any meals.

Can you share with us how you have managed to integrate in this group?

It has been amazing to participate in this group. It was important to meet other women with similar stories; some had even more shocking stories to tell. Each woman has a different story, a story of suffering, but also of great strength. Hearing these stories gave me courage not to give up on my life. I realised that I was not the only one who has experienced such a traumatic event and that the problem was not related to me alone. Another important issue is that the group values the opinions of all, therefore I felt important within that group.

At first, I also had a bit of fear and mistrust. I did not know what the group was about; and what sort of things I could do there, if it was going to be useful or not. I did not know anyone. Over time, I gained confidence in the group facilitator and other women. Now I feel protected and safe when I participate in these meetings and group activities.

Can you present some group activities?

The group meets twice a month. The activities aim to make society aware of the victims’ difficulties and needs and advocate for their rights. It aims to give a voice to the victims, who often have to remain silent. We have developed different activities, participated in public events, such as seminars and conferences, gave our testimonies and took a stand in regard to public policies. We also participated in interviews − among other things.

How would you describe your participation in the group?

It is very good. I participate whenever I can. I am assiduous and punctual during meetings. I am also active and got involved in several activities, for example I participated in a seminar at the Justice Campus, a set of buildings where several services related to the different Courts are located. In this situation, the seminar took place in the Department of Investigation and Prosecution.

In the context of the Hipátia Group, we know that you have actively participated in the building of an artistic installation, the so-called “Pedaços de Nós” (Pieces of Us), which is currently available in AMCV facilities. Can you explain the building process?

First we took plenty of photos of the bodies of all members. Then we combined these photos into puzzle. Each picture tells a story of suffering, but also a story of strength belonging to every woman. Each story is unique, but they all have something in common, since every woman was the victim of some kind of violence.

What is the purpose of this artistic installation?

To communicate to people that every survivor has needs; every survivor is a unique person. But the message is also that violence tears us into pieces. The recovery process is actually the recovery of our lives and of our beings, it implies putting all these pieces back together and rebuilding ourselves. We also want to say that victims should seek support to gain self-confidence, that they can overcome what had happened to them.

Would you like to add any information and to leave a message?

I would like to say to all women victims of violence that they are not alone, they should not be afraid or ashamed to talk about their experiences. They should fight for their happiness. No one has the right to take their happiness away; neither husband nor boyfriend. No one! They should say to themselves: “Enough! I am a woman survivor and I have rights!”

Interview conducted by Petra Viegas & Rita Mira of the WAVE member organisation AMCV – Associação de mulheres contra a violência – Association of women against violence in Portugal.
It was edited by Maria Shearman de Macedo, AMCV & Elena Floriani, WAVE intern.

This interview appeared in the 2016 edition of Fempower. Find the archive of all Fempower magazines here.

Photo is of the Hypatia project, courtesy of AMCV