June 20, 2016
by Trevor Owen
Orkney, where I was born and brought up is one of the safest, happiest and most aspirational places to live in the UK. According to numerous lifestyle surveys, tourist brochures and blogs Orkney is the place to be. And I don’t doubt that for most Orcadians the need for a support service for survivors of sexual violence seems incredulous. My growing caseload and feedback from community agencies suggest otherwise.
As much as we’d like to think we live in an island utopia there are many challenges. Orkney has the highest fuel poverty in Scotland with 63% of households affected. Our population is aging with 30% aged 60 and over. Alcohol tends to be our drug of choice and was reported in 2014 as a factor in a quarter of crimes committed here. Our alcohol related hospital discharges are 121% above the Scottish average. While our population is increasing there are many fragile communities, with less than 20% of the Orcadian population living in our outer isles.
These 70 islands, (19 inhabited) have a unique history, culture and a strong identity all its own. We have the smallest local authority in Scotland and providing services and support across Orkney takes a certain amount of creativity and tenacity not lightly undertaken. We manage to do an awful lot with very little, especially within our voluntary sector and community groups. I’ve noticed a positive change in community confidence and an expectation that wherever we happen to live that services and support will be available and easily accessible.
Orkney experiences the same problems as anywhere else, and sadly, sexual harms are far more common than we might suspect. The Police Scotland report statistics for Orkney Islands Council area state that during 14-15 there were 44 reports of Group 2 sexual crimes, including 10 rapes, 2 intended rapes and 8 sexual assaults. If only 1 in 5 women report sexual crimes and the levels of reporting are lower for men and LGBTI community I could estimate a serious sexual assault happens at least once a week in our safe community. Many agencies, including Women’s Aid Orkney, tell me the Orkney Rape Crisis service is vital.
Orkney is a fish bowl. Although some consider island communities to be remote what happens here is perceived as transparent and public knowledge. Abusive behaviour in our community, must be even more hidden, even more controlled through coercion or transformed into socially acceptable behaviour to escape detection and community condemnation. Perpetrators rely on inequality, a sense of entitlement that privilege gives them, to do what they do unchallenged. Part of my remit in the new Orkney Rape Crisis service is to bust myths and outdated attitudes surrounding sexual assaults which lead to victim blaming and minimising of these serious crimes.
Psychologically we struggle to accept that perpetrators can also be the same people that we know and trust. If we don’t recognise the possibility that rape, sexual assault, stalking, FGM, trafficking and sexual exploitation can exist within our island community we are failing survivors, negating their experience, reinforcing inequality and increasing the risks for everyone.
Last year, the Scottish Government announced funding to invest in the additional support of victims of sex crimes across Scotland including the development of new local services in Orkney and Shetland. We asked stakeholders what support they would like the new Orkney Rape Crisis service to provide, who should be consulted and how the service should be delivered. There was a comprehensive response asking for information, advocacy, prevention and support for survivors, their friends, families and professionals. They said the development of the service should draw on input from across statutory and third sector agencies and the experience of survivors.
Professionals identified a need for specialised support for people with learning difficulties, training for professionals and young people in schools, qualified and trained staff in the service, information on consent, the law on stalking, rape and sexual assault. People also wanted help when reporting to the police, going to medical appointments, solicitors and court. It was of the utmost importance that accessing the service should be confidential, discreet, accessible and creative in supporting service users from rural and outer island areas.
Since I came into post on 25th of January I’ve been working towards these identified stakeholder goals. I was so delighted to be able to launch our service on 22nd of April and start providing support for people in Orkney. Currently I am a part-time (28 hours per week), lone worker, and potentially this might feel quite isolating. In fact, as the support and development worker I am an employee of Rape Crisis Scotland, hosted within Women’s Aid Orkney and mentored by Rape and Sexual Assault Service Highland (RASASH). I have a supervisor in Tayside and a new colleague in Shetland Rape Crisis, Linda Gray. I feel completely integrated within this unique partnership, and benefit from the wealth of experience of all the component parts. This system in turn allows me to provide specialist support for anyone aged 13 and over who has experienced sexual assault, their friends, family and professionals supporting survivors. Support is provided in the community face to face in a number of venues, by telephone, email, text and encrypted online platforms so that distance and circumstances are not a barrier to accessing the help needed. I provide advocacy for survivors and liaise with the professionals concerned. I also provide information on a full range of related issues to sexual crimes, prevention and campaigning to improve the response to survivors.
In the Northern Isles there are no forensic services, survivor or custody. Can you imagine having to make that flight in the aftermath of a violent assault, accompanied by known professionals, in public transport to Aberdeen, undergo examination, reporting and possible treatment and be away from home for 24 hours plus? I know everyone would like to see some improvements to this potentially re-traumatising aspect of reporting and I welcome the review of forensic services currently underway.
For many years residents in our outer isles have said they would prefer the anonymity of seeing certain support workers during visits to the mainland of Orkney. If I was to step on a ferry or plane to go to an island venue it would be confirmed within minutes where I was going and who I was seeing. Far better to allow the service user to determine the nature of support and how they are best to access it. Thinking creatively about how we can make support happen using all the resources to hand can be tricky, innovative and rewarding.
Orkney Rape Crisis