gender violence

A rape every eight hours: thousands of lives to rebuild

According to 2011 data, there were 1,100 violent sexual assaults reported in Spain For the victims, the trauma is a major barrier to moving on

Experts say that half of sexual assaults go unreported.
Experts say that half of sexual assaults go unreported.GETTY IMAGES

It can happen in the garage, in a poorly lit street after a night out, early in the morning on the way to work, in a dark corner of a building entrance, in a park or in the bedroom. The perpetrators can be relatives, acquaintances or perfect strangers. Every year, 1,161 rapes are reported in Spain (or sexual assaults with penetration, in police jargon), according to 2011 data released by the Interior Ministry. That is three assaults a day, or one every eight hours.

Behind each one lies a profound sense of humiliation, physical and psychological pain and other side-effects that will take time to heal, if they ever do. Victims generally to learn to cope, often with psychological help.

"We don't have an eraser, but we can get the wound to stop hurting and ensure that the memory of that experience does not prevent the victim from leading a normal life," explains Beatriz Mergelina, a psychologist at the Assistance Center for Victims of Sexual Aggression (Cavas) in Valencia.

Not every reported rape ends up in a conviction. And it is very likely that there are in fact a lot more cases of rape in any given year than the 1,161 that show up in the official statistics for 2011. This is not just because the figure does not include the region of Catalonia, which keeps its own records (581 sexual assaults in 2011, according to the regional police, who do not specify the kind of attack). It is because many rapes go unreported, especially those that occur in the home or which target minors.

Santiago Redondo, a professor of psychology and criminology at Barcelona University and author of several studies on sexual crimes, says that available information is garnered from surveys like the one conducted in Catalonia in 2010, in which 2.9 percent of women said they had been raped at some point in their lives. These polls also suggest that between 50 and 55 percent of these assaults go unreported. That is why experts believe that the real number of rapes in Spain each year could be closer to 2,000.

Clara, 28, is one of those victims. She went out for a drink in a village near her home town - she would rather not reveal its name, just as she herself uses an assumed identity. She'd never been to this bar before, and she didn't know anyone there except the two girlfriends she was out with that night. A young man came up to her and suggested going outside for a smoke. She agreed.

"He seemed quite normal. I remember we were chatting calmly while we went for a walk." Clara bites her nails as she recalls the terrible event. Even though it's obviously painful, she agreed to tell her story in the hope that it helps other women who have also suffered an assault.

The walk took them to a deserted area near an orange grove. Suddenly, the young man stopped being so charming. "He pulled down his pants and told me to go down on him," she recalls. She refused, and his reaction was inordinately violent. She hardly remembers anything beyond the first blows. After that, there is just a succession of blurred, isolated images. "I had no underwear, and my face was bloody. I saw some young people and asked them for help. I remember the ambulance that took me to the hospital and a policeman who asked me for my father's phone number."

Her jaw was broken in four places. She underwent surgery and spent a week at the hospital. After being released, she was admitted again for a fever that turned out to be caused by a herpes infection transmitted by her aggressor. Between her broken jaw and the post-rape trauma, Clara lost 10 kilos over the next 20 days.

"The consequences of rape depend just as much on the victim's characteristics, her age, her surroundings and her personality, as they do on the type of assault she sustained," says Encarnación Sueiro, a professor of psychology at Vigo University who treats victims in a Galician public health agency.

"Typically they show up with post-traumatic stress," explains Beatriz Mergelina, who gets cases referred to her by Valencian government agencies. "Their sleep pattern and eating habits are altered; they re-live the assault time and again through flashbacks; they are hyper-sensitive to smells and other people's touch..."

At Cavas, treatment usually lasts four years (in the case of minors, until they reach young adulthood). During the first few months there are weekly therapy sessions, and eventually these become more spaced out. "But the girls know that they can call us any time they feel bad," explains the therapist.

It took Clara time to get back to her regular routines. It was six months before she went out with friends again at night. It was a year before she felt strong enough for a train ride. The stop before hers is the town where she was assaulted, and she could not bear the idea of going back, even for a couple of minutes inside a train on her way home. "I had this uncontrollable urge to start running," she explains.

The goal of the treatment is to get the victims back to their former lives by forcing them to face their fears. For instance, Beatriz took Clara to the drinks bar where her ordeal began.

"Now, if I think back on that, it's not the same anymore. It doesn't affect me the same way, although it's still there," says this young woman from the Valencian region. Memories can still return, but in a more controlled way.

Without ever forgetting that the only guilty party in these cases is the rapist, specialists do recommend that women take a few basic precautions to prevent finding themselves in risky situations. Beyond the classic advice of not going somewhere alone or avoiding dark, deserted places, Beatriz Mergelina warns about the need to keep your eyes on your drink at all times. In recent years, support centers have noticed a rise in the use of drugs that are used to spike drinks and put victims in a temporary state of stupor, making them easy prey for rape or robbery.

While it's hard to assess the percentage of drug-assisted assaults, Manuel López-Rivadulla, chair of toxicology at Santiago de Compostela University and a specialist in these compounds, says it might be anywhere between 10 and 20 percent.

"That's what studies in nearby countries like France or Britain say," he notes, adding that Spain has no such data but that he trusts it will soon, thanks to a protocol drawn up last year by the National Toxicology Institute that establishes the guidelines to be followed by hospital workers to determine when rape drugs have been used.

The Interior Ministry's figures show a 16-percent decline in reported rapes between 2008 and 2011. "You have to keep in mind that this type of crime is relatively rare: one percent of total offenses. With such a low prevalence, you can have relatively large variations whose explanation escapes us," says Santiago Redondo, who plays the reduction down. "Probably it has more to do with chance than with anything else. Figures tend to remain rather stable throughout the years."

Clara's attacker was arrested, tried and convicted to seven-and-a-half years in prison. "It seems like very little time," she says. "In these cases, the conviction always seems insufficient to me."

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