'Watershed' reaction to Belfast rape trial spurs creation of new Rape Crisis Centre for Northern Ireland
The impact of the Belfast rape trial is still being felt, exposing gaping holes in support services for victims of sexual violence in Northern Ireland. Health Correspondent Seanín Graham talks to Women's Aid chief Jan Melia about the 'positive' work sparked by events of recent months and re-emergence of a specialist centre.
UP until a week ago, an online search for the Rape Crisis Centre in Belfast provided a location and telephone number.
However the Donegall Street facility has in fact been closed for almost a decade - with Northern Ireland the only region without such a service in the UK or Ireland.
The fact that there is no service in Belfast was highlighted during the high profile rape trial involving Ulster rugby players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding, who were acquitted of all charges against them.
A young woman - who was a friend of the complainant - gave evidence where she described how they "walked up and down the street" after searching on Google for a 'rape crisis' unit which directed them to the city centre site.
Hearing details of their plight prompted victims' groups to contact search engines to have the old address and contact details removed.
While the groups have been jointly working on re-establishing a specialist Rape Crisis service for the north over the past year, they admit the impact of the trial has spurred them to urgently tackle the "huge gap" in immediate "crisis support" for victims.
Earlier this month, the chief executive of Women's Aid, Jan Melia, confirmed that they, along with Nexus and the Men's Advisory Project, were setting up a regional crisis service - and were keen to let rape victims know that "we are here to support them".
With the fallout from the rape case still being felt - a judge-led review of how serious sexual crimes are dealt with in the courts was announced only last Tuesday - Ms Melia told the Irish News she believes the events of the last three months have been 'watershed' for victims of sexual violence and hopes that the creation of a new Rape Crisis service will represent something 'positive'.
She confirmed the project has been quietly 'in the offing' but accepted the trial had exposed a worrying gap in 'face-to-face' support, with the Nexus charity alone having almost 800 people on its waiting list for counselling.
"My worry was when we heard that a young woman was not able to find services...we realised that maybe we're not being as clear as we should be in publicising them," she said.
"When you've been raped what you want is an immediate response. Our helpline provides that 24 hours a day but actually if you have nowhere to go after that and the services are overcrowded, then what do you do. This new service is about that.
"What a rape crisis centre does is provide a very human, immediate response to the crisis that rape creates in people's lives.
"The rape crisis model for me is looking at rape as a power and control issue as opposed to a sexual issue. It moves the victim on and out of the idea that they are in any way culpable. It re-empowers the victim and supports them about making decisions about what they want to do. What rape does is dis-empower the victim it has been inflicted on.
"We are training up volunteers to create that one-to-one service, who will also provide support on a practical level - that may mean going to court and going to police appointments, which can be very scary for victims."
The Women's Aid chief revealed its helpline has received a spike in the number of calls from women in relation to rapes and sexual assaults.
Worryingly, many of the callers have said they do want to report the crimes to police or go through the courts system in light of the Belfast trial.
"The increase in calls has been quite marked in terms of rape and sexual violence. We usually get around 75 to 80 calls a month specifically in relation to sexual violence, but that went up by 26 per cent increase for March," she said.
"What we do know is that the trial - and not just the verdict - but the entire process has put people off in terms of reporting.
"It’s a bit like a Jimmy Savile situation in many respects. Whenever you talk about a trauma, it gives people the strength to come forward and report the issue - but we're also getting calls from people who are pulling out of the formal processes after what they've just witnessed."
One of the major obstacles in setting up the service lies in funding, with multiple submissions put forward for grants over the past 12 months.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has already approved some monies, while lobbying meetings were held with the Departments of Health and Justice in the past fortnight on the issue.
It is hoped the new Rape Crisis Centre will start operating by November, with current offices of Women's Aid and Nexus used as well as a central 'hub'.
In addition to supporting victims, centre staff also hope to educate the public around rape "myths".
"What emerged in the trial is that these myths that seem to be engrained - and unless you have come across this (sexual violence) in your own personal life, you may buy into this," Ms Melia added.
"The idea that women ask for it, the idea that if you don't scream it's not rape - those things are just not true. So our new service will have a campaigning role for sure - inadequacies in the system have been shown up and that's what we're trying to respond to.
"The topic of sexual violence is not something people want to talk about - this conversation we are having now is positive in many respects and the review will help that.
"I think what has happened since this trial been a watershed, it has been our #MeToo moment. We now need to step up and create the change...it's about reclaiming public confidence in the system."
Helpline numbers for victims of sexual violence:
Women's Aid 24hr domestic violence/sexual violence helpline: 0808 802 1414
Nexus: 02890 326803
The Rowan (victims can self-refer for forensic examinations and support): 028 9442 4340