Rape victims ‘need to feel safe’

Experts call for a safer, more comfortable environment in which rape victims can report the crime.

A resident at the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children, where counselling is available for victims of sexual assault. Amy Leang / The National
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DUBAI // Specialised centres to help victims of sexual assault are needed to make it easier for women to receive treatment, support and provide evidence, experts say.

Referral centres, common in the West, offer a victim the option of not going immediately to the police, while providing medical help and a place to collect crucial forensics that could be used if a complaint is lodged against an attacker.

As it stands, a victim of an attack faces the prospect of a police station or a hospital, neither of which offers the most friendly environment, says Susan Partridge, clinical psychologist and head of psychology division at the American Centre for Psychiatry and Neurology.

Dr Partridge believes more victims of sexual violence would come forward if they could report a crime in a safe, comfortable environment with trained female officers.

People who had been attacked “feel ashamed and violated and vulnerable”, she said.

“They have been through a traumatic experience and want to hide away, clean themselves and try to feel safe again. The last thing anyone who has been raped wants to do is go to a police station before cleaning up, be examined by a doctor who takes samples and give a statement.”

This can lead to an under-reporting of rape, Dr Partridge said.

“If they have supportive friends and family and know they will be dealt with by women police officers in a comfortable environment, enabled to shower and have a change of clothes after they have seen the doctor, be seen as a victim, be treated empathetically and that there is some chance the perpetrator will be punished, the chances of the crime being reported will increase accordingly.

“If we want to increase the reporting of rape we need specialised units with specially trained officers and good facilities.”

This is especially true for those victims who know their attacker, making the decision to come forward more difficult, or in a situation where alcohol has been drunk and a victim fears they will be blamed, said Dr Partridge.

“Rape is one of the few crimes where the victim fears being put on trial themselves, either metaphorically or literally.”

Victims may also fear being prosecuted for having sex outside marriage, she said.

“There may be a victim-friendly system out there but it isn’t publicised in any way and I am not aware of it,” said Dr Partridge. “It is a crime that should be reported because if perpetrators are not caught and rehabilitated, they are likely to reoffend.”

Deema Sihweil, clinical psychologist at the Carbone Clinic in Dubai, agreed that some victims of rape feared they could be prosecuted.

“Rape victims are subjected to possible legal ramifications in some societies that continue to believe that rape is a crime of sex and that the victim on some level asked for it,” Dr Sihweil said.

While some women may fear reporting a rape to authorities, the importance lies within entrusting someone, she said.

“If any victim of any crime, including rape, is ever faced with the legal and psychological challenges of reporting, all people must know that they can report to someone they can trust will ensure his or her safety,” she said.

Medical and mental health professionals will help any victim without discrimination, said Dr Sihweil.

“There are plenty of support systems for victims of rape and I can only hope and trust that the medical and mental health services in the UAE also uphold the ethics of non-discrimination. This is important because vulnerable people must feel safe with their doctors.”

Dr Partridge believes more aftercare is needed to support such victims.

“We need an integrated response that starts with supporting victims in reporting rape, and which then provides access to an easily accessible counselling system and good police liaison that keeps them in touch with the progress with their case,” she said.

Amna Al Mutawa, is a counsellor at the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children, which helps to support victims of domestic and sexual violence.

“It is not easy to find victims who find the courage to report being victimised sexually due to many aspects, such as psychological and social reasons, or they want to maintain a good reputation by not revealing their sensitive issues,” Ms Al Mutawa said.

“The Dubai Foundation for Women and Children encourages both men and women to report any type of abuse that they exposed to.”

jbell@thenational.ae