Sexual abuse can happen to anyone, anywhere – at home, at the workplace, even an innocent outing with friends can lead to an incident of sexual harassment.
That is why a local NGO, The Whitehatters, has started a campaign with Casa Raudha to provide a safe space for survivors of sexual abuse.
Casa Raudha will hold monthly support sessions to raise awareness, as well as provide resources and assistance to survivors of sexual abuse, says Zaharah Ariff, founding member of the crisis shelter.
Shahrany Hassan, founder of The Whitehatters, explains that perpetrators of sexual abuse usually involve a family member, someone close to the family or a respected figure in the community. And most of the time, these incidents never get reported.
A YouGov Omnibus research conducted in 2019 found that a quarter (26%) of Singaporean women have experienced sexual harassment, and of those, only half (52%) reported or told someone about the incident.
“It is often especially difficult for victims of sexual assault to come forward because the process of reporting a crime and the things that follow can be scary and unfamiliar,” Marshall Lim, associate director of Invictus Law Corporation says.
To create a safe space for victims of sexual abuse to be heard and understood and begin their journey towards healing, The Whitehatters hosted a webinar in October to encourage victims to seek help through counselling, therapy, legal consultations, and support groups
Here are stories of two survivors who are speaking out to help other sexual abuse victims.
Abused by religious mentor: Elizabeth Teo
Elizabeth, now 35, was 18 years old when she met her abuser K, who is more than two decades older than her.
K, a leader in her religious community, and his wife helped Elizabeth with her spiritual growth in weekly prayer sessions. Elizabeth trusted and looked up to K, so she opened up to him about her life struggles. Subsequently, with his wife’s permission, K started meeting Elizabeth one-on-one.
Then it changed one day when K grabbed Elizabeth by the hand and accused her of making him fall in love with her. When she rejected him, he threatened to hurt her family, his wife and himself.
Once, when she refused to speak to him in the car, he slammed on the brakes in the middle of the expressway, resulting in a serious accident that left the car completely wrecked and Elizabeth terrified.
Not recognising the manipulation and web of abuse she was trapped in, Elizabeth was at a loss at how to escape the emotional blackmail. For the next three years, she would meet K in his car daily, where the sexual abuse took place.
“As he sexually abused me, I just stared at the (religious icon) in his car and told myself that what he was doing was only to my body. I begged God to take the rest of me away while he violated my body,” shares Elizabeth.
Filled with shame, Elizabeth kept the abuse a secret.
Although the sexual abuse stopped after three years, she could not move on with her life. Depression and self-harm crippled her. Now, Elizabeth has more than 200 scars from cutting herself and more than 100 stitches on her body.
“Focusing on the physical pain of the self-harm helped to take the focus away from the emotional pain I felt inside,” explains Elizabeth. “I also stopped eating because I wanted my external body to reflect the immense emotional pain I felt inside. At my lowest, I weighed only 29.6kg. I attempted suicide three times because I just wanted the pain to end.”
Sarah Pho, a psychotherapist with 15 years of counselling experience, says that trauma often affects people physically – it shapes their self-identity, impacts the way they relate to others, and affects their minds with fragmented memories and flashbacks.
Reclaiming personal power can help to rebuild one’s sense of self. And one way to do this is seeking therapy, which includes body-based, brain-based, creative and cognitive therapies.
Arrested after one of her suicide attempts, Elizabeth awoke to find herself handcuffed to the hospital bed. She broke down in tears, frustrated that while she was here in chains, her abuser was out there scot-free. That was when the self-blame began.
Exacerbating her pain, her psychologist and a religious leader she spoke with both told her to take responsibility for her own rape.
Things only started taking a turn for the better when Elizabeth met a new therapist who helped her realise that the abuse was not her fault.
She says: “It took me 15 years to have the courage to make a police report about the abuse. However, after a year and a half of investigation, the case was dropped.”
Today, Elizabeth is pursuing a masters in counselling and guidance, to help other survivors of sexual abuse. She also founded Safe Spaces, a platform that provides tele-therapy care and prevention education.
She shares her story so that other abuse victims will have the courage to come forward for help and to share their stories. She also hopes that by showing her challenges, therapists and religious leaders will become more aware about the role they play as first responders to sexual abuse and not fall into victim-blaming.
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Abused by family member: Siti Noor Mastura
Noor Mastura’s earliest memory of sexual abuse is of when she was only four. The perpetrator, a member of her extended family, continued abusing her for more than 10 years.
As a child, she didn’t know what was happening. “That’s what usually happens – it is introduced as a game. He assigns us each a character and we play along because we trust the adult. But I started to discover that this was wrong [in my teens]” says Noor Mastura.
During a talk by gender advocacy group Aware in 2019, she asked a room of participants whether or not they had taught their kids the difference between a “good touch” and a “bad touch”. She said then: “Most kids, when touched in the wrong places, don’t know what is happening. We don’t speak to our kids enough about this.”
Psychotherapist Sarah Pho explains that sexual abuse usually entails a systematic and ritualistic manner of acting sexually towards an unwilling person of lesser power.
The magnitude of trauma depends on the age the victim first experiences the abuse. The younger the victim is, the more enduring and pervasive the effect of the trauma is, as the brain is still developing and does not have the capacity to process the abuse.
In 2017, when the #metoo movement gained popularity, Noor Mastura read up more on sexual abuse and how it can affect a victim if not dealt with. It was then that she resolved to face her problem, rather than shutting the memories out.
As she allowed the flashbacks to return, she started to recall more incidents. Although excruciating, this began her healing journey.
“A lot of the hurt and pain comes from the sense of betrayal that this person did this to me. Although this happened to me so young, I still shared a relationship with this person, because he was so close to my family. There was a lot of confusion and conflict of emotions,” she shares.
When she finally plucked up the courage to tell her sisters what happened, one of them revealed that she was abused by the same person.
Noor was able to draw newfound strength from the anger she felt for her sister. “That led to my decision to tell my mum and the people I trust in the family. I now know that he is a perpetrator because it’s no longer a one-time incident, he did it to my sister as well,” recounts Noor Mastura.
As she shared her story with more members in the family, she discovered that the perpetrator had abused two more people in the family.
“All of us have different ideas of what justice is for us or what outcome we will be satisfied with in telling our stories. For me, it brought me satisfaction that everyone in my family and his immediate family now know. It doesn’t matter what the perpetrator’s response or defence is, because at least he was being questioned about it and he’s aware that what he did to us is not a secret anymore.”
Going to the authorities
If you believe you have been sexually abused, call 999. The sooner you report the incident, the faster the police can help you. You can also go to a neighbourhood police post.
Lodging a police report and dealing with the legal process can be daunting.
When reporting a sexual assault, victims can expect some privacy. If needed, a forensic medical examination can be conducted to collect DNA evidence of the offender. Some victims may also be asked to undergo a polygraph test.
Victims may also be asked to attend an interview with a prosecutor in the attorney-general’s chambers. If the prosecution decides to prosecute, the offender generally has two choices – he can plead guilty or plead trial, the latter would require the victim to attend court as a witness.
Often in trial, traumatic and intimate details may be revealed. The court can safeguard the victim’s identity by issuing a gag order. Other ways to offer privacy and protection from the offender during trial include an in-camera closed-door hearing or testifying via a video link or from behind a screen. The victim need not be in the same room as the offender.
Please note that a police report may not lead to a prosecution. In this event, a victim may choose to sue the perpetrator for damages. This process may be costly and time consuming.
Other forms of help
Somatic experiencing focus on resolving trauma through working with the connection between bodies and minds. Body massage and yoga can help repair the part of the brain that is in charge of our body regulation.
Creative therapies such as dance, music and dramas are ways to express yourself without verbalising your inner experience.
Brain-based therapy such as neurofeedback or EMDR (eye movement, desensitisation and reprocessing) focuses on rewiring the brain directly. Mindfulness or meditation is also good for rewiring neurological pathways.
Cognitive therapy involves restructuring unhelpful beliefs and thinking patterns.
Attachment focused therapy can help guide clients towards getting their attachment needs met.
Medication can help but look for a psychiatrist that you can connect well with as how one responds to medications is closely linked with the experience of seeing the specialist.
AWARE/ Sexual Assault Care Centre 6779 0282
PAVE 6555 0390
For medical help
KKH 6225 5554
NUH 6779 5555
SGH 6222 3322
Action for Aids 6254 0212
For legal information
Community Justice Centre 6557 4100
Legal Aid Bureau 1800 225 5529