Coventry Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre – reaching people that others can’t, working with them in ways which others won’t…

Most voluntary organisations are started by volunteers and as they take shape and flight, their story is often one of exploring how to organise resources in the most effective way.

In 1981, Coventry was a city marked by violence and efforts to challenge that violence. The home band, The Specials, released their classic song Ghost Town as a single in June that year, playing an anti-racist gig following a series of racist attacks in town.

With that tune on the radio around the time, a group of local women established the Coventry Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre (CRASAC). They were inspired by an example in North London, the first UK rape crisis centre, that had operated a volunteer service successfully for five years. Until 1990, when CRASAC received its first formal funding and employed two full-time workers, the counselling service was run entirely by volunteers active in or sympathetic of the women’s movement.

Fast forward thirty nine years and the principle of support services for victims and survivors of sexual violence is established, but the challenge of achieving justice remains unresolved, with more people speaking up, women and men, on sexual abuse, in the context of the #MeToo movement, but the courts evidently failing survivors of rape, a rise in domestic violence in the context of the pandemic and constant, endemic insecurity of funding for work delivered through rape crisis centres.

A survey released today by the Victims’ Commissioner Vera Baird shows that only one in seven rape survivors in England and Wales believe they will receive justice by reporting a rape.

CRASAC is one of the most effective centres in the country and has grown over the years to serve the people of Coventry. 8,000 people have used their services over the last year, reaching across the diversity of the local population.

This includes men who have suffered. Anyone can be raped or sexually assaulted, CRASAC says, but if they believe that they are expected to be strong, to be able to act in defence, many men “often blame themselves for the abuse and turn the anger on themselves for not preventing what happened.

All the services CRASAC offer are rooted in feminist values and a human rights framework, designed to “ensure the well-being, health and mental health effects of sexual violence and abuse are addressed in a safe service and victims and survivors are enabled to regain critical power and control lost through their experiences of sexual violence and abuse.”

As with so many other frontline charities, #nevermoreneeded as the hashtag says, CRASAC has worked throughout 2020, accepting referrals, offering telephone and online support, restarting some face-to-face services and re-opening their premises after the first lockdown ended – as soon as they could be classed as ‘Covid-secure’.

Over recent months, Pilotlight has had the privilege of working with Natalie Thompson, the relatively new CEO of CRASAC, with the support of a talented and motivated team of Pilotlighters (our members) drawn from Barclays Bank. The work is under the theme of Setting Directions.

The organisation challenge that the team have looked to help with is the opportunity to develop a new service, which would be using the skills of the charity, its staff and volunteers, to train and accredit organisations in society or the economy on addressing sexual violence.

The idea of a training service would, as Natalie described it, be a ‘win, win, win’, generating unrestricted income for the charity, raising awareness and supporting victims/survivors of sexual violence. One of the first engagements was with the University of Warwick. The university has worked with CRASAC over time, stepping this up when a series of complaints by students on sexual abuse were mishandled.

Another priority sector highlighted by the Barclays Pilotlighters in their report, delivered to Natalie and colleagues this month, is the legal profession. A global survey in 2019 across 135 countries by the International Bar Association confirmed that sexual violence is endemic in the sector, with one in three women who responded reporting that they had faced sexual harassment in a workplace setting.

The need for training is also because ironically, despite more exposure in recent years from the Everyday Sexism and #MeToo movement, there are still so many myths about rape and sexual abuse – including about what consent is, about the kind of people who rape and about who it happens to. As CRASAC says “these myths discourage survivors of sexual violence from coming forward after they’ve been raped. They shift the responsibility for the crime from the perpetrator to the survivor who may fear that they will themselves be put on trial.”

One of the benefits of a new service if it takes off as a social enterprise arm would be to reduce a reliance on statutory and grant funding of the charity. CRASAC is in a relatively stable financial position compared to some, having benefited from strong support over time from Coventry’s decision-makers. But as a CEO with twenty years experience of work in the voluntary sector, starting at the Doncaster Council for Voluntary Services, Natalie knows that an economic downturn puts pressure on charity incomes.

Organisation choices such as this are commonplace across voluntary organisations and to succeed in a climate of risk has meant a close focus on organisational capacity, the core work of Pilotlight. As Jane Grant writes in her outstanding biography of the Fawcett Society “The women’s voluntary sector is on in which it has been notoriously difficult to operate… Women’s organisations are chronically underfunded, which makes the struggle more difficult. At the same time, women’s organisations have faced problems of governance and leadership, often believing that women cannot misuse power in the same way as men and that ‘being sisters together’ will somehow of itself ensure peace and harmony. Unsurprisingly, they have been, often painfully, disabused of these beliefs and have had to struggle to build structures that enable and protect both individuals and groups.”

In this context, the work of CRASAC and other women’s organisations is all the more important and the more impressive for the formula that they have found for values, volunteering, employment and governance.

The importance of CRASAC’s work is expressed well by Duncan Shrubsole, Lloyds Bank Foundation, talking about rape crisis centres more widely: “such a charity often reaches people that others can’t, works with them in ways which others won’t and stays engaged with them in ways which others don’t.”

In 2021, Coventry will be the UK City of Culture. The Specials will return, with band members due to take to the stage to play live again.

CRASAC will celebrate an anniversary of forty years of service… and with a fair wind, we will see a new training and accreditation service take off for tackling sexual violence for the years ahead.

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