Krista, deals with the coordination of sexual assault services for Victim Support Malta, which are the only specialized services available to victims of sexual assault and rape in Malta.
We have a problem in this country. Well, we have many problems, but there is one which I’m set on discussing today, and that’s how the we treat sexual violence in Malta. At Victim Support Malta, we offer social work, psychotherapeutic and legal services to any alleged victim of sexual assault locally, and we also work closely with hospital and the police to make sure that victims are provided with the best possible care and support.
Following yesterday’s allegations against a teacher in Ħamrun, the MUT pleaded with the Minister for Education to launch his own investigation. You’d think that after all the work I do with victims of sexual violence I’d be thrilled by the onslaught of condemnation that this alleged perpetrator has received following the media coverage. I’ve seen comments on social media practically calling for him to be hanged – but it’s really two sides of the same coin.
I’m not happy to see an alleged anybody, be it victim or perpetrator, condemned by online media, social media, and society at large before he or she has a right to a fair trial.
“The hardest part of my job is not having to work with people who have been raped… [it’s] the skepticism, the disbelief, the eagerness to catch them in a lie.”
That being said, the hardest part of my job is not having to work with people who have been raped. I work with women and men who have been physically violated, who have been robbed of the notion that their body is their own, who have been shown that someone can steal something that they didn’t think could be taken away, who have been so heavily traumatized that they now see a different person each and every time they look in the mirror…
The hardest part is having to deal with the attitudes that these men and women have to face on a day-to-day basis following their assault: the skepticism, the disbelief, the eagerness to catch them in a lie.
On the 14th of November 2016, one of my social workers called me to tell me that there was an alleged victim of sexual assault at the hospital. We kept in touch during the day, as we do with every other case, in order to try to maximize the service that the alleged victim was receiving. On the 16th of November 2016, I was informed by the same social worker that the alleged victim wouldn’t be coming for her appointment with us, because she had been arrested for false reporting.
I was shocked. For the past three years now since I’d been coordinating this service, not once did we have a situation where a victim was accused of false reporting, until today. Five minutes after we ended the call, the social worker called back: “just to give you a heads up, it’s on the papers”, she said.
At that moment I knew that I was going to be dealing with the backlash of this for the next few years.
I came home, read the articles, and saw the headlines of ‘false accusations’ and ‘lying under oath’. You know what I didn’t see? Any coverage about how the alleged victim (at the time) waited for 9 hours for someone to inform a magistrate about her case so that forensic samples could be taken. I didn’t see anything about how, when presenting the initial report (before there was any suspicion that it might have been a false report), the victim was made to go to four separate police stations because they couldn’t decide who should handle the case.
I also didn’t read about the three police officers who were at the hospital, but could not take her report until their inspectors decided who would be handling the case.
“It was all over the papers… what I didn’t see was the fact that the victim was made to go to four separate police stations because they couldn’t decide who should handle the case.
Only two of the cases which I have worked on have had high media coverage – one involved a Malaysian perpetrator, whose face was plastered all over the papers, spreading the notion that all rapists are black; and this one – this one false allegation. I wonder if people remember the 2002 case of a minor who falsely accused her father of sexual assault after being coerced by her mother…. I do, and not because it is something which happens particularly often, but because it is brought up each and every time I try to advocate that many and most sexual assault claims are genuine.
I appreciate that, for the protection of the victim, most genuine rape cases do not receive detailed media coverage – let’s be honest, it’s a much less interesting read when you don’t have a name and a face to the story! But this is me, pleading the Maltese society not to take everything that is reported in the media as a representation of the wider picture.
“[This one case] is brought up each and every time I try to advocate that many and most sexual assault claims are genuine.”
I was recently interviewed by a colleague for the VSM blog about our sexual assault services, and when she asked me if I would like to add anything at the end of our discussion, my final appeal was for people to ‘be kinder’.
We’re so set on judging everyone out there, that we rarely stop and think of the harm we can cause. So please, next time you hear of a sexual assault allegation, don’t think ‘but she’s probably lying’; instead try to think ‘it must have been so difficult for her to come forward’, ‘I hope the people who she encounters don’t judge her before they hear her story’, and ‘I hope that people are kind to her’.
We really need to stop blaming victims for the mistakes of others, for our own prejudices and fears, we need to make a change. And this change starts by one person’s refusal to gossip, to slut shame, to allocate blame, to decide a person’s fate before the courts even get a chance. So this is my appeal today – please be that person. Please be kinder.
*I use ‘her’, because it is my experience that most victims of secondary victimization or ‘disbelief’ are women.