#metoo encourages survivors of sexual violence to speak out. But where is the funding to support them?
Services that support survivors, prevent and treat harm must be fully funded.
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Conor Twyford, chief executive of Wellington Sexual Abuse HELP, is sitting in her office on a broken chair, working on a second-hand computer.
It’s the perfect metaphor for the system Wellington HELP operates in — a system that has been fundamentally broken for decades.
As movements such as #metoo give more survivors the courage to step forward to seek help, the frontline organisations set up to support them have to work even harder to fill the massive gaps in their budgets.
“We’ve been talking about this issue for so long there’s a risk that people will perceive us as whingers,” says National Rape Crisis spokesperson Andrea Black.
Andrea began working for Rape Crisis in 1993, and her mother was a member of the Dargaville collective in the 1980s. It’s thanks to the collective goodwill of the sector’s workforce — largely women, often unpaid or underpaid, and deeply rooted in their communities — that New Zealand has been able to maintain essential services for sexual violence survivors.
And far from accusing advocates of being whingers, there’s now widespread acknowledgement that the sector’s funding model has forced survivors’ support organisations into a permanent state of crisis.
“We are completely overrun”
The sexual violence sector suffers from the same issue that besets many social services agencies: partial funding.
Government funding doesn’t meet the full cost of services, and isn’t increased to keep pace with rising demand for services.
Wellington HELP receives about two-thirds to three-quarters of the funding it needs to keep going. In the last financial year, that meant it had to raise $240,000.
In March this year, Wellington HELP’s board asked for a report on how much it would cost to close the organisation down if it ran out of money. Only a lottery grant and a successful public appeal have enabled it to keep its doors open for another year.
“It’s easy for sexual violence to slip down the political agenda when there are issues as compelling as homelessness and family violence,” says Conor.
“But the demand for our services continue to rise. We are completely overrun. Every year we ask ourselves, ‘Can we keep going?’”
“Limited, unstable funding”
Andrea says National Rape Crisis has seen demand for sexual violence support services increase since the #metoo movement came to public attention late last year.
Growing numbers of survivors are seeking help with current and historical sexual assaults, and GPs and community services are referring more people for support. The Ministry of Justice estimates around 186,000 sexual offences are committed against adults in New Zealand every year.
“This is a really high pressure environment with lots of stress and high workloads. Agencies like ours have to spend their time looking for philanthropic and corporate support instead of putting all our resources back into the community,” says Andrea.
In 2015, a report by the government’s social services committee into sexual violence funding acknowledged the sector had “limited, unstable funding” that wasn’t adjusted to meet demand.
The government accepted the issues raised in the report, and in 2016 announced an extra $46 million of funding over four years. However, the money was spent internally with government agencies and thinly spread throughout the sector, doing little to alleviate decades of chronic underfunding.
Lengthy waiting lists
Support agencies are left having to make hard choices about who to help first.
National Rape Crisis prioritises crisis situations, especially in families with children. Its waiting lists vary around the country: child victims of sexual assault may have to wait five months for therapy.
Wellington HELP currently has a three-month wait for people seeking counselling, and can only afford to have one person on its crisis line at night. If two or more people need to be supported while they are interviewed by police, a crisis worker supports one in person and the others by phone till a social worker starts work at 9am.
There is a national sexual harm helpline, Safe to Talk — funded with part of the $46 million allocated to the sexual violence sector in 2016 — but its staff also need to be able to refer callers on to frontline organisations.
While they wait for help, survivors can be retraumatised. Typical symptoms include being too afraid to leave the house.
The path to healing
In her 20s, social justice advocate Georgie Ferrari volunteered at a sexual assault service, working the phones and supporting women through forensic examinations. Twenty-five years on, she’s appalled that the sector still survives on a shoestring.
“Who on earth does the government expect to pick up the slack for the funding it doesn’t provide? Its response is, ‘We don’t care — just do what you need to do,” says Georgie.
But there are grounds for cautious optimism. The 2015 report into sexual violence funding was in response to an inquiry initiated by Green Party MP Jan Logie, a former Women’s Refuge worker. She is now Parliamentary Under-Secretary with responsibility for domestic and sexual violence issues, and has pledged to work with the sector to create “an integrated and responsive family and sexual violence system”.
Andrea says the sector is hopeful, but change is slow to come. In the meantime, there are two types of client who keep her motivated to continue.
“The first are children who have been believed, and get the help they need to heal, and can go on to lead happy lives without being defined by sexual violence,” she says.
“The second are women I’ve worked with who have been in the mental health system for 20 years with PTSD and depression and agoraphobia. Through long-term therapy, they can feel the sun on their face again. They can become who they truly are.”
“Amazing things happen. If we’re given the funding, we have incredible opportunities to make a difference to people’s lives.”
Join the fight
ActionStation is campaigning to end sexual violence in our communities for good.
Providing adequate government funding for sexual violence support services is a critical first step, and is one of three ‘asks’ in a petition we’ll be delivering to the House of Representatives before the May 2019 Budget.
We’re aiming for 50,000 signatures — will yours be among them?
To join the fight for our safety, click here to sign the petition and share it with your friends and whānau.