Chapter - sexual assault in rural communities - briefing - australian centre for the study of sexual assault (acssa)
Two respondents to the survey noted the many opportunities for workers in met-ropolitan areas to engage in feminist activism (such as forums, meetings andactivities like “Reclaim the Night” marches) in contrast to their own contextswhere a public show of feminist solidarity and shared purpose could potentiallybe met with community contempt. Workers also spoke of the added complexitiesof needing to develop strong working relationships with actors in the local area,some of whom may be conservative or explicitly anti-feminist. Overall, workersfelt it important to recognise that feminist practice had to be “done differently”sometimes in rural contexts.
Lone workers and other health or welfare workers
The difficulties faced by sexual assault workers in rural areas are magnified tenfold for lone workers in very remote communities. When asked what aspectsof her service she would change if possible, a lone worker in central Australiaresponded simply:
“Employ another worker – a sole practitioner position which is supposed to
service central Australia and provide supervision to [place omitted] is too much.”
In areas where these is no specialist sexual assault service or outreach worker,other health and welfare professionals are inevitably called upon to respond to sexual assault disclosures. It is essential that these workers be adequatelytrained, resourced and supported. It is unclear to what extent health and welfareworkers are able to provide an appropriate response and ongoing support to sexual assault victims.
Over a decade ago, Karen Baxter (1992) warned us against thinking therural–urban divide in the context of sexual assault could simply be reduced to oneof population size. Instead she urged a more sophisticated approach that tookaccount of the combined “effect of geography, the characteristics of the people inrural areas and the characteristics of service providers as central themes [for]understanding rural communities” (1992: 175).
There seems little doubt that many of the difficulties faced by victim/survivorsand services in rural contexts differ in degree, not kind, when compared to theirurban counterparts.
Services across the country express similar levels of frustration in terms of theirincapacity to meet demand; their need to focus on crisis care as distinct fromlonger-term support to adult survivors; and the pressure to confine their service-scope to that of dealing with the effects of sexual assault as distinct fromharnessing their expertise for prevention.
However, responding to issues of isolation, rural conservatism, and the denial ofsexual assault within rural communities remains distinct. Rural women undoubt-edly suffer the impact of sexual assault in ways that uniquely compromise theircapacity to remain anonymous, their right to access culturally appropriate serv-ices, and their rights to seek a police and/or a legal response. The nominalprovision of specialist services that can assist Indigenous survivors and womenfrom culturally diverse communities also continues to be reflected in how fewwomen will consider accessing mainstream service support.
A U S T R A L I A N I N S T I T U T E O F F A M I LY S T U D I E S
While the solutions to these problems involve change that is both systemic andcultural, the more immediate concerns of being able to document reliably theexperiences of rural victim/survivors should remain a priority. It is critical in thiscontext also to give priority to methodologies that will respect more culturallyappropriate ways of recording the experiences of Aboriginal women and womenfrom culturally diverse and non-English-speaking backgrounds. The PersonalSafety Survey, scheduled for 2005 to replicate the Women’s Safety Survey of 1996,aims to more reliably account for women’s experiences of physical and sexual vio-lence in both urban and rural contexts.
Information on how rural women might differ from their urban sisters in makingdecisions to report to police and to seek assistance from support services, healthpractitioners and the courts will contribute to an important evidence base forservice-providers to lobby policy-makers in the future.
1 ACSSA surveys were distributed to three services within each state and territory.
Broadly, the surveys covered issues such as: the history and philosophy underpin-ning service frameworks; current issues relevant to sexual assault and servicedelivery; and the challenges associated with providing services to victim/survivorsin rural communities. Surveys were generally returned from at least two of the threeservices approached. These ranged from specialist sexual assault services to serviceproviders working within community health, women’s health or hospital basedservices. ACSSA is enormously indebted to those services who participated in theresearch – our sincere thanks to them for their efforts in so thoughtfully reflectingon the diverse range of service issues they currently face.
2 ACSSA provided assurances of confidentiality in relation to attributing individual
comments to services that participated. In broad terms, the services included fourregional centres with population sizes in excess of 40,000 people; five regional serv-ice centres with populations between 18,000 and 30,000; and five towns or ruralcommunities ranging from between 3,500 to 13,900 people.
3 See, for example, Jodie Sloane’s overview of the South Australian project “The Way
4 Weeks noted how employing Aboriginal workers in dedicated positions within sex-
ual assault services usually resulted in an increase of Indigenous women accessingthe service. This was also the case for women from culturally diverse backgrounds.
More sustained efforts to changing the service structure tended to be multi-facetted– such as employing bi- or multi-lingual workers, developing information in arange of language groups and collaborative projects being undertaken with othercommunity organisations that had pre-established relationships with immigrant orrefugee women.
5 Babacan cites research by Gray et al. (1991) that suggests patterns of immigration to
rural areas largely fall under three categories: family reunion, refugee and humani-tarian programs and employer nominations (1999: 237).
6 Other limitations of the Women’s Safety Survey are detailed in ACSSA Issues Paper
1, Just Keeping the Peace: A Reluctance to Respond to Male Partner Sexual Violence
(Heenan 2004). However, it is particularly important to note how the surveymethodology was more likely to draw participation from English-speaking, non-Indigenous women who were living in a private residence.
7 While the Crime and Safety Survey 2002
(ABS 2003) suggests little difference in sex-
ual assault victimisation rates between capital cities and non-metropolitan areas,the broad categories limit the extent to which these figures are likely to reflect realincidence. The methodological approach of using postal surveys to collect theinformation might also impact on women’s willingness to disclose sexual violence.
8 It is important to note that many other services that exist in rural communities are
still unable to offer victims of recent sexual assault a face-to-face crisis service afterhours.
A C S S A B R I E F I N G N O . 3 J U N E 2 0 0 4
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