The vast majority of us know someone who has been sexually assaulted, whether we know it or not. The staggering numbers are borne in a 2006 survey in which 12 percent of women and 4.5 percent of men reported being sexually assaulted before the age of fifteen. And an estimated one in five women have experienced sexual assault after the age of fifteen.
For these people the ability to access a wide range of support services is crucial. Doctors, psychologists, social workers and law enforcement are all common go-to resources. But local, grassroots organisations are another part of the equation that can give women ongoing support—on their terms.
Belinda Chelius, a senior practitioner at Zig Zag Young Women’s Resource Centre in Camp Hill in Brisbane south, works with young women between 12 and 25 who have been sexually abused. In her experience, many women who have been sexually assaulted as a child seek help later in life, when they feel more empowered, are out of the situation and when it may begin to impact on their adult lives.
“That trauma impacts physiologically, psychologically, emotionally, so much that their whole system goes into shock,” says Chelius, who goes on to explain some of the emotional barriers many women face in the aftermath of sexual trauma.
“The survivor takes on the guilt that is supposed to lie with the perpetrator and takes on the shame that’s supposed to lie with the perpetrator,” she says.
“It’s incredible how the shame paralyses a lot of survivors of sexual assault.”
Many women worry about how speaking out will affect their relationships with their partners, their friends and their family—especially when the perpetrator is a relative. “It’s the prejudice around it,” she argues.
When women are ready, Chelius says, Zig Zag offers a safe, non-threatening environment, staffed entirely by women. She acknowledges the valuable role psychologists and other professionals can play in the recovery process, but points to a number of differences that make community organisations like Zig Zag stand apart.
For one thing, she notes sexual assault is Zig Zag’s primary focus. Staff are on hand to offer assistance including counseling, resources and support during legal proceedings. And due to the non-institutionalised nature of the program, women can come in and have a “human interaction with us” without a referral, Medicare card or cash in their pockets—a favourable option for women who are especially concerned with privacy.
Plus, unlike a psychologist who may be able to offer up to 12 sessions at a low-cost rate, Chelius emphasises not-for-profits like Zig Zag can offer a long-term solution with zero financial pressure.
But it can be difficult for some women to know that free community outreach support is available. Often when they share their experience with a general practitioner (GP), the doctor may not include these services as part of the referral process.
In a 2010 resource guide published by the Mental Health Coordinating Council, women-focused community organisations noted that very few referrals came from GPs. “Participants speculated that women may be unwilling to reveal a history of childhood sexual abuse to their GP or that GPs may not identify this as a problem that needs referral.” They also pointed out that many of the referrals were for reasons other than childhood sexual abuse.
Chelius agrees and argues some GPs don’t necessarily know about the community programs that are available. GPs are often the first stop for a young woman or child and, “they’ve got a referral process, they’ve got a psychologist or a social worker on their books and that’s who they refer to, and it’s very hard for us to break into that and let them know we are here and that we are funded,” she says.
And for some women, the clinical approach alone may not be sufficient to deal with their trauma.
Zig Zag employs a different approach from those in the medical and mental health professions. The staff at Zig Zag aren’t mental health experts and Chelius says the organisation makes a point of avoiding the typical mental health process. “We don’t look at a young woman with a particular label, ” she explains, “we look at her through her experience, her trauma and how her trauma manifests in daily life.”
Changing the “dominant language” surrounding sexual assault is another focus of Zig Zag’s. “We talk about a ‘young woman,’ not a ‘patient’ or ‘client’. ‘Survivors’ not ‘victims,'” says Chelius. “We call them ‘issues’ not ‘disorders.’ And ‘struggles’ rather than ‘behavioural problems.'” Zig Zag also avoids pathologising.
But despite offering a distinct alternative to other types of services, Chelius underlines the value in all of them and believes having a combination of resources available is key.
In the end the hope is that the women who come through Zig Zag’s doors will one day leave equipped with the tools to continue to build positive, full-filled lives.
“One of the myths is that sexual assault will impact your life forever negatively,” says Chelius.
“Yes, it’s a memory, it’s a part of a young woman’s experience, but she can walk away from here and live a life full of meaning with the skills to deal with those impacts.”
“Most of our young women, because they’re such survivors, they’re so resourceful, they’re so resilient, they are aware of their healing process and know when they are ready to move forward without intense support.”
Find out more information on Zig Zag, including how to donate. Or find further resources from Queensland Health.