Thinking || #WEcount: Reclaiming London for Survivors

I first met Pavan Amara about six weeks ago and remember thinking to myself “are you sure this is Pavan Amara?”. Let me explain – a year or so ago, I read about something called the My Body Back Project. Pavan had set up the project after her own experience with sexual violence, determined to help fellow survivors in reclaiming their bodies.

One of the most unique and essential services MBB offers, is a clinic that specialises in helping survivors get through the routine medical procedures such as STI screenings or smear tests. It seems a basic thing, but ask any woman over 25 and they will tell you that smear tests are not a pleasant experience, and can feel incredibly uncomfortable and invasive. Now imagine going through that experience every three years when you’ve survived your body being invaded in the most intimate and traumatic way.

I remember getting my first invitation to a smear test shortly before my 25th birthday. I remember reading it and adding it to my mental to do list.

I remember the second letter that came a few months later, and the third after it.

I don’t remember actively not booking an appointment. Or feeling particularly intimidated. And yet, no appointment. I began to worry. What if I have HPV or cervical cancer that is going undiagnosed because I haven’t had a smear test? Why have I not booked one? What am I afraid of?

Then I remembered visiting an STI clinic five years ago, shortly after my own experience of rape. I thought that I was feeling okay, I was in a reasonably stable place, until I was lying on a medical bed in floods of tears as a sympathetic doctor tried to finish her examination as quickly as possible. I may not have been consciously avoiding, but maybe my body was doing it for me.

Fast forward to six weeks ago. I’m in the MBB clinic and Pavan is greeting me with a big smile on her face, ushering me into a room and asking me what kind of sweets I like. One of the things I notice straight away is how often she giggles. You can’t be in her company and not giggle too. She goes away and comes back with water and has somehow sourced a bag of mini gingerbread men – I’m immediately at ease.

By the end of the appointment, I realised that all I ever needed was someone to get it. To just get it. All the way through, the MBB team understood – from the doctor who carried out the test to the psychologist teaching me mindfulness techniques, to Pavan emailing me that evening to check I was doing okay. Whatever I needed, I was given. I was allowed to go through this unpleasant experience at my own pace, in control of my own body. It was a release that I hadn’t accepted that I needed, a basic right that I had been denied and was suddenly being handed back to me, sweetened with gingerbread.

When I met Pavan, I saw only a warm, supportive and funny woman who had made my comfort her priority. There was no hint of her own pain. I thought “is this really Pavan Amara?” because I couldn’t believe I was sitting in front of another rape survivor.

And that’s a statement in itself. We are the women who pass you by every day. We are happy, sad, angry, funny, loud, quiet, tall, short, fat, thin and everything in between. We are survivors but it doesn’t mean we are wearing our pain on our faces for everyone to see. There is a perception that rape is this horrific thing – and it absolutely is – but that can lead people to believe that it must only happen to handful of people –  if it were happening everywhere, why would we not see it more? Why would we not see women screaming in the streets? Why would society not completely collapse?

Society doesn’t collapse because survivors are taught to fend for themselves – with poor justice and underfunded support services. We deserve better, but we are also more than what has happened to us.

Yesterday, the Women’s Equality Party (I’m a fan, as you’re aware!) launched a new campaign, #WEcount, to reclaim London’s streets for women. At the centre of the launch is a video, featuring Pavan Amara.

“Before, your city is just your city, and then after it kinda becomes ‘your city is your city, apart from that bit'”

“It really does get better and there are some incredibly difficult times…no one can take you away…people can do what they want, but they’ll never take the essence of you away, ever”

You might not see my hand on social media, inscribed with the postcode of my rape, because it didn’t happen in London. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t dread walking around London at night. It doesn’t mean that my wonderfully supportive other half doesn’t bend over backwards to make sure I feel safe; picking me up from the station late at night or getting tubes out of his way to meet me so we can get a taxi home together, always trying to create a sense of safety so I can keep my sense of self.

“I hope for a London where you can walk down the street and there’s no chance of being assaulted. I know that sounds like such a basic thing, but we’re not living in that London at the moment.”

Show your support for #WEcount write a postcode or place in London where you’ve experienced violence, groping or catcalling and post a photo on social media, or email it to WEcount@womensequality.emailnb.com who will post it anonymously for you. If only 1 in 10 rapes are reported, there could be as many as 40,000 of us, not counting the millions of women who experience unwanted attention and verbal harassment everyday. We deserve safer streets. We matter. We count.

If you have been affected by any of the content in this video or blog and are in need of help, Rape Crisis are here to help you.

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