What do young people need to overcome sexual violence?

According to the Ministry of Justice, 16- to 24-year-olds are four times more likely to experience sexual assault. Yet, across Aotearoa, the availability of youth focused sexual harm services remains limited. Why is this? 

Sexual Assault Support Service Canterbury (SASSC) is run in partnership with START and offers 24/7 crisis support to individuals and their whānau following the disclosure of a recent or historic sexual harm incident. Thanks to funding from The Vodafone Foundation, the SASSC Team recently worked on a project which explored the support available for young people following sexual harm. As well as commissioning a literature review, the project interviewed youth participants to better understand their experiences.

The research identified several service limitations – workforce capacity, lack of funding, and inconsistent response. 

As one participant explained, “I’m reluctant to access mental health support for sexual harm. There’s a lot of work to be done in the crisis system, because they are so understaffed.” 

This is something we often see – people reluctant to reach out, taking the burden of a lack of resources upon themselves.

“Social services, health, and justice systems can be challenging for young people to navigate and at times can lead to additional stress,” says SASSC Senior Clinician and Project Coordinator, Sofia. 

When young people do seek support, there are limited services which meet their needs – they might be put into “children’s services,” services designed for people much older or worse yet, be turned away completely because of their age.

Another thing the research found was that support offered was often not appropriate. Younger people might lack flexibility in their schedules to access support at the times or locations offered. And in terms of communication styles, phone calls simply don’t work for everyone. 

“Young people often want access to instant online professional support delivered in a discrete online environment. And that is rarely available,” says Sofia.

One of the key themes of the feedback, was the need for holistic, accepting support, appropriate to  the individual. 

“When survivors open up, I would hope they accept them exactly as they are, as well as acknowledge they have been harmed,” says one participant.

Others highlighted the need for diverse workforces, which would make it easier for rainbow, Maori, Pasifika, and male youth to open up.

So, what would a youth focus look like? The research identified two parts – what we do before and after the crisis incident. Prior to the incident, consent and sexual harm education is key. After the immediate crisis, services can provide information, advice, advocacy, crisis counselling, and accompaniment. It is essential the system is easily accessed and navigated by youth and well-integrated with other services they might need.

As Sofia says: “Collaborative, wrap-around sexual harm support from  both government and non-government sector agencies with a youth focus is required.”


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