I support the one in four:
A campaign to raise empathy for sexual abuse survivors living in our community
By Ciaran Torrington, Vice President Kaitaia BPW, NZ
I come from a town in the Far North of New Zealand Aotearoa that is trying to come to terms with and address the huge amount of sexual abuse that occurs within our community. Recent high profile cases have drawn the attention of the media and the public and this has created awareness and fear of sexual abuse offending but this has not created empathy and support for survivors of sexual abuse.
When one thinks of preventing sexual offending our focus is automatically drawn to the perpetrator not to the survivor. Societies resources are focused on the offender because that is what the public fears the most. The survivor receives fewer resources and less support from their community because the fear the public has of sexual abuse is extended to include the survivors. The survivors of sexual abuse frequently encounter people who emotionally distance themselves from their pain, denying and minimising the suffering from sexual abuse, isolating them and increasing their challenge to heal.
If we have no empathy, no connection to another person’s suffering, then we cannot see them, we cannot see their pain, we cannot help them, we cannot see the sexual abuse that has always occurred and been accepted within our society.
For some time now I have tried to be upfront about my child sexual abuse history. For me, challenging the shame and stigma that society attaches to sexual abuse survivors has been an important part of my life journey’ from trying to heal myself, to helping other survivors heal as a counsellor and to influencing social change within society at how they respond to sexual abuse survivors.
I have been a member of Kaitaia Business & Professional Women for 6 years now. I joined after I received a second chance scholarship from another BPW club. Part of being a BPW member has been considering why women are lacking in leadership and governance positions around the world and I believe that sexual abuse is a key contributing factor. Sexual abuse attacks at the very core of your self-worth and identity. I left home and school at 16 years old. I was struggling for survival and getting an education was secondary. I went back and educated myself later in life but only after years of therapy. I often wonder about the time that I lost, what could have been?
Sexual abuse can make you feel like you’re absolutely nothing and every time that I felt embarrassed, like I had failed, the thought “your worthless” would pop into my head, paralysing me. Even now, these thoughts make it difficult for me to lead and put myself out there into governance roles. I had to ask myself how many women are being held back from educating themselves and from leading in our society because they struggle as I do.
It has been estimated that one in four females are survivors of sexual abuse and for male survivors it changes, one in six or one in eight, but one in four in my experience as a sexual abuse survivor feels about right overall.
The one in four have always been amongst you’ they are your sisters and brothers, daughters and sons, cousins, aunties and uncles, parents, grandparents, they are your friends, your work colleagues, they are members of your community. But, how many times do we talk as if the one in four is not in the room?
For some time now I have contemplated how to get our community to support survivors. I came to the conclusion that as long as we remain emotionally distant from survivors we can never truly support them. I started to consider how to break down this distance and build connection towards survivors.
During this process I was challenged that current resources in New Zealand were already addressing this issue. As a person who works on the frontline of abuse in my community I know that current measures are not enough and do not specifically focus on building empathy and support for survivors. The goal is on catching perpetrators’ not on helping survivors heal and reach their potential.
I was influenced by the Like Minds workshop that I had attended many years ago’ this tried to reduce stigma and build empathy towards people who suffered from mental health illnesses. I took my proposal to my Kaitaia BPW club that we try and petition government to fund workshops that focus on building empathy towards sexual abuse survivors. My club supported me and my proposal was taken to our national BPW conference where it was passed by our members, and during this process something beautiful happened.
In sending out my proposal for discussion, survivors in other clubs had come forward asking for support for my proposal, one person told me how they had known their friend for a long time and never knew of her suffering’ she told me how they had grown closer as a consequence and she had tears in her eyes when she told me. I realised then that in just discussing my proposal this had built empathy for survivors, suggesting that this strategy could effectively work in our community.
While I was working on this proposal, several people approached me in BPW each saying” I am the one in four”. I then had another realisation that within “the one in four” lay a collective identity that was meaningful to sexual abuse survivors. When I googled “one in four” sexual abuse education sites came up in Ireland and USA, indicating that “one in four” is a collective identity that is meaningful to sexual abuse survivors around the world.
I came back to my club, asking that we reach out to our community with the: “I support the one in four” campaign and they strongly supported me. At the same time the MASSive hikoi was announced that encouraged the community to speak out against sexual violence. Kaitaia BPW decided that we would support the hikoi and speak out in support for the one in four survivors living in our community. A number of our members participated. I spent 2 hours on the hikoi and spoke on the radio, it was a powerful experience for me and other members of my club and for us the beginning of the “I support the one in four “campaign.
Kaitaia BPW will be uploading a video showing our support for the one in four on to YouTube shortly, along with 7 tips to build empathy and support for survivors to heal. Our goal is to stimulate discussion and support that is ultimately healing for survivors. We encourage everyone to break their silence and support the one in four by creating their own videos, posting their own comments and reaching out to their own networks to support the campaign. Everyone has their part to play to influence change in our community.