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Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) and National Child Abuse Prevention Month – a statement by Nicky Gurret, Chair of the OBA Women’s Caucus

April 2021 is both Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) and National Child Abuse Prevention Month. Women of the One Bermuda Alliance (WOBA) met this month to discuss critical issues relating to families, women and children as well as to identify ways to highlight and support the work of three essential charities in Bermuda.

In many countries, statistical and anecdotal evidence indicates that incidents of abuse have risen during the COVID-19 pandemic. In some countries, including the United States, they have fallen; however, social workers with an intimate and expert knowledge in the area are acutely aware that fewer complaints are masking a darker reality.

The extended closure of both schools and day-care centres, has resulted in a situation in which teachers have found it difficult to identify and report any abuse.

In many ways, cases of sexual assault and abuse are as virulent and insidious as the COVID-19 pandemic itself. Three charities: Saving Children and Revealing Secrets (SCARS), the Centre Against Abuse (CAA) and the Women’s Resource Centre (WRC), are on the frontline of the fight.

SCARS is Bermuda’s sole child sexual abuse prevention charity, and its primary mission is reducing the risk of child sexual abuse and increasing the number of advocates, people to act as a voice and support for children who have been sexually molested, and their families. Statistics suggest that a community that can effectively aid, and comprehensively heal, molested children and adults who have been sexually traumatised can ultimately result in a reduction in drug abuse, alcoholism, teen pregnancies, mental illness, self-injury behaviours, eating disorders, promiscuity, violence and suicide in the community. The work of SCARS, therefore, helps tackle societal issues at their source.

The CAA’s mission is to provide support to both male and female adult survivors of domestic abuse and sexual assault. This support takes the form of court advocacy, counselling, resettlement services, a 24-hour crisis hotline and education for the community to promote healthy relationships and work towards eliminating domestic abuse and sexual assault.

The WRC offers education and training programs and provides support including information, counselling and courses for women who have faced or are facing challenging traumas to empower women.

Historical statistics on sexual assault in the US and the UK are both stark and shocking:

In 2010, the National Sexual Violence Resource Centre in the US reported that one in five women and one in 71 men will be raped at some point in their lives, whilst one in three women and one in six men have experienced some form of contact sexual violence in their lifetime. Of these, 91% of victims of rape and sexual assault are female, whilst nine percent are male.

Ominously when considering the specific effects of lockdown, in eight out of ten cases of rape, the victim knew the perpetrator.

In the UK in 2017, according to the Rape Crisis Centre, 20% of women and 4% of men have experienced some type of sexual assault since the age of 16; the equivalent of 3.4 million female and 631,000 male victims.

Historically, low conviction rates are just as troubling: in 2005, according to Amnesty, a third of people believe women who flirt are partially responsible for being raped, whilst Kelly, Lovett and Regan found that conviction rates for rape are far lower than other crimes, with only 5.7% of reported rape cases ending in a conviction for the perpetrator.

These statistics aren’t presenting a historical quirk. A growing body of evidence suggests that incidents of domestic violence and sexual assault are rising as families and individuals struggle with restrictions on movement and mounting economic hardship. Bermuda is no different from the US or UK, according to Elaine Butterfield, Executive Director of The Women’s Resource Centre, who refers sexual abuse callers to the Centre Against Abuse headed by Laurie Shiell. Ms. Butterfield added, ‘Another form of sexual abuse is the viral exploitation of children and teens who may fall prey to sexual abuse as a result of spending more time on computers during COVID-19. This is a huge opportunity for predators to connect with children who may not otherwise be aware of the cunning grooming skills that online sexual predators have become very good at. It is imperative that parents both educate and monitor their children’s use of online chat.’

Statistics from before the pandemic, coupled with the evidence of an expanding crisis of cases of sexual assault and abuse, highlight the importance of the SCARS training in Bermuda.

The SCARS web page states that: “Bermuda Statistics are difficult to obtain because most victims do not disclose or report their abuse, but what we do know is that child sexual abuse exists in our community and is quite prevalent”.

In Bermuda the Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) consists of a sexual assault nurse examiner police officer and if the assault is on a child a support officer from the Department of Child and Family Services. If the person is above 18 the Centre of Abuse will provide direction and counselling support. Statistics reported show that seven children, 4 females and 3 males and 18 adults were examined at the hospital for sexual assault in 2018

These statistics provide some insight into sexual assault in the UK, USA and Bermuda and they reveal that sexual offences are historically and chronically under-reported and highlight the indispensable work of three essential charities: SCARS, the CAA and the WRC in identifying, supporting and giving a voice to victims and survivors of sexual assault and abuse.

During Sexual Assault Awareness Month, the Women of the One Bermuda Alliance (WOBA) salute these valuable and ever-vital charities.

A more aware community naturally leads to better understanding and help.

With this in mind, WOBA will be making a donation of clothing to the Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) in order for victims to have a new set of comfortable clothing after a hospital sexual examination.