Sexual Assault Support Under Lockdown

Overcoming the effects of sexual violence is a difficult and challenging journey, but the Sexual Assault Support (SASSC*) team at Aviva are there to ensure that it doesn’t have to be traveled alone. We spoke to Client Services Manager Fiona, and Clinician Abby, to find out how they support people and what that has looked like under lockdown. 


“I have heard many clients cry for the first time in a while, due to being given the security and space with SASSC to do so,” says Abby. “A lot of clients cannot talk to their family members or housemates about their harm specifically while in lockdown, so to be able to be supported by SASSC to share openly has been a sense of relief for most.” 


However, Abby emphasizes the importance of timing. “For those who have experienced sexual violence, the biggest pathway to recovery is accessing support that is tailored for you. There is no timeframe for healing from trauma and so during lockdown it may feel appropriate to address this, however it may also not be the right time.”


Since lockdown began, Aviva has seen an increase in family violence referrals, but a decrease in new referrals for sexual violence. While this could be in part because enforced social distancing reduces risk for some people, it doesn’t mean that sexual violence isn’t still happening. Sadly, Fiona tells us, “we expect that those experiencing sexual harm are likely not letting anyone know at this time. We are expecting things to get busier a few weeks after we go down each level.” We see a similar trend each year around the earthquake anniversary and did so after the Mosque attacks in 2019. Fiona recalls a client who was raped in the weeks following the terrorist attack saying, “it didn’t seem important with everything going on” so she didn’t notify police, get medical treatment or support.


Another reason why SASSC may be experiencing a lower volume of phone calls is issues of privacy in the home, “I have seen that when I call, clients cannot talk in a discreet way; having to step out for a walk or to their car has been a challenge in terms of privacy. Or they’re living with the person who [used sexual violence]” says Abby. 


For a small number of people, lockdown has made it easier to talk about what’s happening for them, “Sexual Assault is underreported, which means so many people go through life coping with the effects of trauma alone. But at the moment, it is normal to be having a trauma response to the pandemic. Suddenly, the effects that are shamed and hidden are normal and they can talk about the effects without having to talk about the assault. They have community and connection back. This trend was also noted by our partners at START following the Canterbury Earthquakes,” Fiona explains. What’s more, some actually prefer video calls, “some people who, due to trauma, never wanted to leave their safe spaces have enjoyed the new way of doing things.”


The important thing to remember says Fiona, is that both under lockdown and beyond “help is here when you need it”. While SASSC operates across Canterbury, there are sexual violence services all over the country. Just like Aviva’s family violence, crisis line, SASSC’s helpline is available 24/7. Following a sexual assault, SASSC can provide support and advocacy services; support for parents/ whānau of people who have been sexually abused; and access to safe, temporary accommodation (if needed). Beyond the point of crisis they can provide ongoing support for  people and their whānau as they navigate their experience and recovery and do a full assessment of a person’s needs, which can include referrals to longer term counseling services. Under levels 3 and 4 lockdown, the team has been unable to attend medical exams or police appointments, but instead provides support over the phone or via video immediately before and after (if desired). 


Abby’s final words for people are this: “the most important thing for accessing support during lockdown is that it is done so in a way that makes you feel secure, safe, and that your support is going to be confidential. We’re with you to ensure that you are not in an unsafe situation that could expose you to further instances of harm.

“For someone supporting a person who has experienced sexual violence, the biggest factor for building trust and communication is that the person who has experienced harm feels safe, heard, and fully believed. Encourage your loved one to share as little or as much as they can. Let them lead.”

These words of advice are relevant not only under lockdown, but always. 

To donate to Aviva’s emergency appeal, please click here.


*Sexual Assault Support Services Canterbury