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More survivors of sexual assault are coming forward for help after Grace Tame put the issue in the spotlight

ABC Health logo ABC Health 16/04/2021

Katrina Munting was a 15-year-old high school student when she was groomed and repeatedly sexually abused by one of her teachers in the late 1990s.

Twenty years later, fellow survivor Grace Tame's advocacy inspired her to come forward and tell her story.

"To be able to go, 'This is me, and this is why I am who I am' — that has made such a difference," Ms Munting said.

Ms Tame was groomed and raped by her 58-year-old maths teacher from the age of 15.

She was named 2021 Australian of the Year for using her voice to help push for legal reform to allow Tasmanian survivors to tell their stories using their own names, and for her advocacy for survivors.

The award has put the issue of sexual abuse firmly in the national spotlight.

"On one hand it's been really tricky to negotiate having so much triggering media," Ms Munting said.

"I want to be part of that conversation ... but I've had to be quite selective about when I read, because I know that it will upset me.

"But the flip side of that, finally being able to speak freely ... it's like someone's flicked a switch and is allowing society to speak about it."

Referrals rising around the country

It has been an exhausting three months for Ms Tame since she was named Australian of the Year, but she says it has been worth it.

"The impact of this recognition is so symbolic of progress and hope, and it just fills me with such fire and passion to keep going and spreading love," she said.

"The energy, the positivity, the love that I'm seeing not only given to me, but to the survivor community as a whole, and in turn just everyone with this new-found positive attitude, that just gives so much back."

In Ms Tame's hometown of Hobart, the local sexual assault support service, , has experienced an increase in people coming forward for help.

"A lot of the people that have been contacting us ... have mentioned Grace Tame and what's been happening at Parliament federally," SASS chief executive Jill Maxwell said.

She said over one week in March, SASS received 21 referrals alone.

"Normally it's between 10 and 15 [a week] ... We've seen a marked increase in people reaching out to our service.

She said referrals had been increasing for several years.

"Over the last five years our service has seen a gradual increase. As of five years ago to date, we've seen a 74 per cent increase in referrals. But just over the last 12 months, we've almost doubled our monthly referral rate," Ms Maxwell said.

It's not only support services in Hobart noticing the shift.

Queensland's said that from January 21 to February 21, there was a 36 per cent increase in calls to its statewide sexual assault helpline, and from February 21 to March 21, the increase was 42 per cent.

A spokeswoman for DVConnect said the large number of people who took part in March 4 Justice rallies across the country sent a strong message to survivors that they were believed, heard, and that change was being demanded.

The based in Geelong in Victoria supports more than 5,000 people a year who have reported or experienced sexual assault.

Chief executive Helen Bolton said in March alone the centre experienced a 41 per cent increase in referrals.

Ms Bolton said there was a "groundswell of support" for Ms Tame, former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins — who alleges she was raped by a colleague in Parliament House — and for other survivors who are calling for change.

"When we look at even Grace Tame's [Australian of the Year] acceptance speech, her call to action, her pride, the groundswell of support that she has is so freeing for people that have carried the burden that doesn't belong to them," she said.

"The stigma of sexual assault doesn't belong to the victim, it belongs to the perpetrator.

"And it's so freeing for people to finally feel that it's safe for them to come out and disclose that they're a survivor of sexual abuse."

National conversation 'validating' for survivors

Ms Maxwell said listening to those survivors who wanted to share their stories was important.

"Only when we start hearing their stories will we understand what we need to change," she said.

"While [those stories are] traumatic for anybody to hear, let alone another survivor, I think it's really important that other survivors out there know that they're not alone and that it's OK to tell."

The DVConnect spokeswoman said: "When you are the trusted person that a survivor chooses to tell, it is vital that you give them space to tell their story, that you believe them and respect whatever decisions they make about what happens next."

Ms Bolton said sexual assault could be prevented.

"We need cultural change," she said.

"We need a focus on respectful relationship programs in our schools, we need prevention initiatives across a range of settings — in our workplaces, in our sporting clubs, in all sorts of institutions across society — that look at primary prevention," she said.

Ms Tame hopes Australia can "move forward, beyond this initial phase of disclosure, to discussions and actions to do with education as a primary means of prevention".

"There really needs to be a focus put on the psychological manipulation that underpins the physical acts of sexual abuse, because not enough is understood about that," Ms Tame said.

"And because not enough is understood about that, perpetrators are enabled, they're shielded from a lot of the shame, and they capitalise on our ignorance."

Katrina Munting said the national focus on sexual abuse was validating for survivors.

"It validates our feelings, our emotions.

"While what happened to us is unique, there's so many common threads in what has happened and how we feel and how we respond."

"Having that validated on a national level has been amazing."

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