Responding to sexual assault in rural communities

ACSSA Briefing No. 3 – June 2004

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Differences in degree...or kind?

Over a decade ago, Karen Baxter (1992) warned us against thinking the rural-urban divide in the context of sexual assault could simply be reduced to one of population size. Instead she urged a more sophisticated approach that took account of the combined "effect of geography, the characteristics of the people in rural 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/survivors and services in rural contexts differ in degree, not kind, when compared to their urban counterparts.

Services across the country express similar levels of frustration in terms of their incapacity to meet demand; their need to focus on crisis care as distinct from longer-term support to adult survivors; and the pressure to confine their servicescope to that of dealing with the effects of sexual assault as distinct from harnessing their expertise for prevention.

However, responding to issues of isolation, rural conservatism, and the denial of sexual assault within rural communities remains distinct. Rural women undoubtedly suffer the impact of sexual assault in ways that uniquely compromise their capacity to remain anonymous, their right to access culturally appropriate services, and their rights to seek a police and/or a legal response. The nominal provision of specialist services that can assist Indigenous survivors and women from culturally diverse communities also continues to be reflected in how few women will consider accessing mainstream service support.

While the solutions to these problems involve change that is both systemic and cultural, the more immediate concerns of being able to document reliably the experiences of rural victim/survivors should remain a priority. It is critical in this context also to give priority to methodologies that will respect more culturally appropriate ways of recording the experiences of Aboriginal women and women from culturally diverse and non-English-speaking backgrounds. The Personal Safety 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 violence in both urban and rural contexts.

Information on how rural women might differ from their urban sisters in making decisions to report to police and to seek assistance from support services, health practitioners and the courts will contribute to an important evidence base for service-providers to lobby policy-makers in the future.