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  • Conor Twyford

Op-Ed: Unprecedented demand for HELP as sexual assault in the spotlight

*This is the Op-Ed I wrote for Stuff, that appeared 16 March.


OPINION: Last week our organisation HELP was contacted by the general secretary of the Labour Party, Andrew Kirton, for advice following an incident that happened at a Labour youth camp in February.

The stories that have emerged of what occurred at the Young Labour camp are absolutely unacceptable. But the reality, sadly, is that this problem is happening all around us, all of the time. It's not isolated to Young Labour. We have a culture of sexual violence in this country that we need to address.

Because it is an uncomfortable subject, as a society we don't talk about serious sexual harassment, assault and abuse until high-profile instances like this occur. For the many thousands of survivors of sexual abuse, however, this is a burden they have to live with daily. Our country desperately needs to discuss this issue more often and more openly.

The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements are providing a voice for people demanding change both overseas and here in Aotearoa. It's totally achievable. But the first part of the process is accepting, as a society, that we have a problem that we are no longer willing to ignore.

The organisation I lead, HELP, is a not-for-profit organisation which works with survivors of sexual abuse and their whānau. We provide a 24-hour crisis line and we are the agency contacted by the police when a person reports a rape or sexual assault. We provide free, ongoing support to survivors, including, social work and counselling.

We are experiencing unprecedented demand. This year we are on track to see 700 people across Greater Wellington, double the number of people we saw last year and twice the number we are funded to support.

We, along with other similar agencies across Wellington, are committed to helping every survivor who takes the decision to come to us. But to do the change work required, agencies like ours need to be better resourced to deal with decades of sexual abuse across all generations.

More funding is one, important part of the answer. But we also need a cultural shift where this issue is taken seriously. In Wellington, the Sexual Abuse Protection Network (SAPN) delivers a really impressive consent education programme for secondary schools called Mates and Dates. Currently only 16 per cent of schools across the nation are taking up Mates and Dates because prevention work in this country has to date been under-resourced.

I don't know the details of what happened to the young people at the Young Labour camp, nor should I. Every day we have people calling in seeking support from our frontline staff – and their information should remain confidential.

What I can say is that in situations like this, the people affected should be put in touch straight away with specialist support: at the earliest opportunity.

Furthermore, the victims of assault should always have power over their own process and where they want to take it. There have been a lot of people saying that, because of their age (all complainants were 16 or over), Young Labour should have informed the Police and the young people's parents.

While this sounds good in theory, and in reality, many young people do end up telling their parents and police, this process has to be led by survivors.

In some cases, alerting parents or the police without the young person's prior approval could have a detrimental effect and add to their level of shame and self-blame. There are occasions where people do not want to tell their parents because they have very good reasons not to do so.

Young Labour, along with all other organisations, should be looking hard at how they can promote a culture of consent and positive behaviour at camps, events and in the workplace. As there is still a major lack of awareness and understanding around consent and sexual abuse, organisations have a vital education role to play.

What we have here is an opportunity for Young Labour to do some really good work to act as agents of change at a time when people are really looking for that change. I know that Andrew Kirton has reached out to the Sexual Abuse Prevention Network to ask for support into its review of what happened at the February camp so as to improve its culture and practices going forward. That is a good step.

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