Singapore

Helping rape victims who come forward


SINGAPORE – In the sleepless hours after she had been raped by a man she once thought she would marry, Bella (not her real name), felt lost.

The 23-year-old was alone at home as her parents were away. She could hardly face the thought of making a police report.

Speaking to The Sunday Times about the assault by her ex-fiance on June 15, 2019, she said: “It’s hard to say, but it felt like it was the end. I couldn’t think or sleep. I just lay down and cried. I never expected him to do that.”

Bella was hesitant about going to the cops not only because she was afraid to tell her parents what had happened, but also because the process seemed so daunting.

A friend who went to her home the next morning eventually convinced her to do so and accompanied her to the police post.

In February this year, the man was sentenced to eight years’ jail and given six strokes of the cane.

Bella said being interviewed, undergoing a medical examination and the court processes that followed were made easier because her investigating officer (IO) reassured her and kept her updated whenever she asked questions.

He even offered to be there when she told her parents, but Bella did it on her own.

Referring to her attacker, Bella said: “When he was arrested, I sometimes asked myself if reporting him was the wrong decision because he is young and his family relied on him financially. When I had those thoughts, I would tell my IO and he would tell me, ‘you did the right thing’.”

And after she had read the statements by the accused about how he had raped her to get her pregnant, she realised she should not have felt bad for him.

Since he pleaded guilty, Bella did not have to go to court. Her IO told her about the outcome, which brought her a huge sense of relief.

“Other women need to know it’s OK to report. Because if they don’t, the guy could do the same to other people. It’s also for (the victim’s) own safety too because he could return and do it again,” she said.

Her case is one of the hundreds of rape cases that are reported to the Serious Sexual Crime Branch (SSCB) of the Criminal Investigation Department every year. And the numbers are increasing.

In 2018, SSCB handled 213 rape cases. There were 281 cases in 2019, and 348 last year. In most of them, the men accused were known to the victims.

The Association of Women for Action and Research’s (Aware) Sexual Assault Care Centre has seen a fairly constant number of rape and sexual assault by penetration cases over the past three years. There were 266 in 2018, 270 in 2019 and 258 last year.

Yet, Aware’s head of research and advocacy, Ms Shailey Hingorani, said that among the centre’s clients, who include survivors of other forms of sexual assault, seven in 10 choose not to file an official report.

She said: “The reports received by the police are likely only a small fraction of the true incidence of sexual violence in Singapore.”

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The issue of how survivors of rape are treated when they make reports surfaced in Parliament last month.

Workers’ Party MP Raeesah Khan had said she had accompanied a rape survivor to make a police report three years ago, but the 25-year-old woman came out of the police station crying after the police officer allegedly commented on her dressing and the fact that she was drinking.

Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan responded that allegations of the police mishandling a sexual assault case are serious and need to be investigated.

Ms Raeesah then said she did not wish to re-traumatise the victim and the intention of her speech was not to cast aspersions on the police. She said: “The police is part of the solution, not the problem.”

Yesterday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said a White Paper with concrete proposals to tackle issues concerning women will be presented in Parliament early next year.

On violence against women, he said: “Victims must be able to seek help easily, and without suffering additional distress. More importantly, victims must not have cause to fear that they themselves will be blamed or shamed for what has happened to them, and therefore suffer in silence.”

All rape cases here are handled by SSCB IOs who undergo specialised training to learn how to strike a balance between sensitivity towards the victim’s emotional trauma and their fact-finding goals.

Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) Kimberly Ang, an officer-in-charge of a team in the SSCB, told The Sunday Times:

“Whatever facts we need to know from them (victims) is to help in the investigation. It’s not because we want to judge them in any way. The only way for us to do that is to build some kind of rapport (and) trust from the beginning so they feel safe.”

Victims are also offered a victim care officer (VCO) for practical and emotional support throughout the investigation and criminal justice process.

There are currently 113 VCOs – volunteers who have backgrounds in psychology, counselling, or social work, and who are selected and trained by the Police Psychological Services Department.

Ms Poh Hui Ping, a senior VCO who was part of the first batch appointed in 2014, said: “Most importantly, we must ensure they know we are willing to listen, and they are not alone.”

Police psychologist Tiffany Nicole Danker said regular police officers also go through a module on sensitivity training in their basic courses. It covers theory on victims and trauma, active listening skills, and a safety-emotion-information model to organise a victim’s needs.

Ms Danker said SSCB IOs ask questions that may make it seem that they do not believe the victims. But they need to ask these questions to get the information to build the case. She added: “It’s about how they can go about it in a way that is more empathetic and more supportive.”

On the increasing rape cases, some observers said this could be due to more women coming forward to report the assaults.

Invictus Law Corporation associate director Cory Wong said the numbers may include attacks not reported until years later. He said: “We have had cases of delayed reporting (in which) victims were violated as a child and only later reported it as an adult.”

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Mr Sunil Sudheesan, president of the Association of Criminal Lawyers of Singapore, told

The Sunday Times: “If wrongs have been done, victims should seek advice and lodge reports. Victims should not bury things. I sense a continued uptrend of police reports when sex has objectively taken place. The issue then is evaluating whether there was legitimate consent or not.”

Consent becomes more contentious when alcohol is involved, noted Quahe Woo & Palmer associate director Diana Ngiam. She said: “The courts have been looking objectively at whether the complainant is in a position to give consent.”

She added that under the Penal Code, one cannot give proper consent if one is intoxicated to the extent that one is unable to understand the nature and consequences of one’s purported consent.

Aside from legislative measures and efforts by the authorities, more can be done to tackle the issue of rape and encourage victims to come forward, say observers.

Head lawyer Gloria James of law firm Gloria James-Civetta & Co said: “More attention can be (paid to) counselling victims and rehabilitating perpetrators… No amount of new legislation is going to be fully effective unless men and women are better educated on how to respectfully treat one another.”


About the case

After Bella (not her real name) broke up with her fiance in May 2019, he would not leave her alone. She rejected his attempts at reconciliation.

About a month later, the man, then 20, went into her unlocked home, knowing she was alone, and raped her.

On Feb 22 this year, he was sentenced to eight years’ jail and given six strokes of the cane.

Deputy public prosecutors James Chew and Grace Teo urged the court to impose 10 years’ jail and six strokes of the cane.

They said: “A person’s home is their sanctuary. A woman has a sacrosanct right to her bodily integrity. This case involves a flagrant and deplorable breach of both these inviolable principles.”

On June 15, 2019, Bella went out at around 6pm to buy groceries and was approached by the accused at her void deck. He insisted on accompanying her to the mall.

Later, they argued about their relationship, and Bella told him not to follow her home.

The pair continued to argue over WhatsApp.

At around 9pm, she sent him a message saying, “im sick dont disturb me alr. Let me move on”.

His reply was to ask her to open the door. He knew her parents had a habit of going to Johor Baru on weekends and were not home.

She was in her bedroom when she heard someone opening the door to the flat, which she had left unlocked. The accused then entered her room.

They went to the living room where they argued again. Bella asked him to leave but he threatened to impregnate her so she would have to rekindle their relationship.

As she stood up and told him to go, he grabbed her right arm and pulled her into her bedroom where he raped her.

Afterwards, she went crying to the toilet to wash up. He told her not to cry, and said he would help her have an abortion.

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He then left.

At around midnight, Bella sent him a message saying she wanted to commit suicide. She also sent him a video of her holding a knife pointed at herself.

The next day, she told a friend, who convinced her to file a police report.

She did not get pregnant.


Why knowing sexual history helps police

It might be a deeply personal issue for some, and others might even be offended when asked.

But knowing about a rape victim’s sexual history is important in rape investigations, said the police and criminal lawyers.

Not only does it help in analysing forensic medical examinations, but it also helps investigating officers pose questions about the assault to victims in a way they would be comfortable with, said Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) Kimberly Ang.

DSP Ang, an officer-in-charge of a team at the Serious Sexual Crime Branch (SSCB) in the Criminal Investigation Department, told The Sunday Times: “We need to know so we can calibrate how we ask questions because some people may not understand the words we use.”

She added that if the victim is a child or someone who may be new to sexual acts, the person might be more comfortable communicating through dolls, drawings or writing.

This is where the training and assessment on victim management for SSCB officers come in.

DSP Ang, who has been with the SSCB for two years, added: “The challenge is building the trust (and) a rapport from the start. When we are able to do that from the beginning, the rest actually flows quite naturally.”

Defence lawyers said that relevance is key, in court, if they wish to bring up the sexual history of an alleged victim. Since 2018, the accused or his counsel has been required to get the court’s permission before they can adduce evidence or ask the victim questions about physical appearance or sexual behaviour which does not relate to the charge.

Mr Sunil Sudheesan, president of the Association of Criminal Lawyers of Singapore, said: “When we talk about sexual history with other persons, to me, it’s not relevant to the incident with this new perpetrator.”

However, Mr Cory Wong from Invictus Law Corporation suggested that one instance in which a victim’s sexual history could be relevant is if there is reasonable doubt as to whether vaginal tears found during the medical examination are linked to a separate instance of consensual sex instead of the alleged rape.

Ultimately, Ms Gloria James of Gloria James-Civetta & Co stressed, the questioning of sexual history in police investigations should not get misconstrued and no one should draw their own conclusions on a victim or the incident as whole. She said: “This act of ‘victim-blaming’ is archaic and has no place in our current society.”


Helplines

  • Big Love Child Protection Specialist Centre: 6445-0400, contact@biglove.org.sg (weekdays 9am to 6pm)
  • National Anti-Violence Helpline: 1800-777-0000 (24 hours)
  • Aware’s Sexual Assault Care Centre: 6779-0282 (weekdays 10am to 6pm)
  • Tinkle Friend (for children): 1800-274-4788 (weekdays 2.30pm to 5.00pm), Online chat (Mon to Thurs 2.30pm to 7.00pm; Fri 2.30pm – 5.00pm)





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