Local governments have stepped up efforts to help victims of sexual assault by setting up support centers nationwide, but challenges remain in keeping their doors open around the clock and providing mental health support for counselors.
The Nagasaki Prefectural Government saw a significant increase in inquiries on sexual assault cases after it opened a one-stop assistance center last April to offer multiple areas of support in one place. The center is designed so that victims don’t have to explain their experience numerous times at various institutions, including police stations.
Since the launch of the center, the number of consultations hit 225 over nine months through the end of 2016. Before it was established, authorities received only about a dozen inquiries per year on sexual violence.
“We didn’t expect such an increase,” the Nagasaki center’s Tatsuo Kinoshita said. “Special institutions and staff with special knowledge are necessary.”
But the center currently has only one female staffer to receive inquiries, and its hours are limited to 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays. Depending on the requests of victims, the staffer will meet victims in person and introduce a lawyer and therapist.
“We’d like to operate 24 hours a day, but it’s more difficult in local areas to secure staff and budget,” Kinoshita said.
According to a Kyodo News survey conducted in January and February, all 47 prefectures will aim to establish one-stop assistance centers where victims of sexual assault can receive medical treatment and counseling, thanks to new subsidies from the central government.
The centers will serve as a refuge for sexual assault victims, including those who find it hard to report their cases to police.
Eleven prefectures currently without such a facility are considering setting one up, after the central government allocated ¥160 million for the centers in the fiscal year starting this April.
The subsidies are designed to partially compensate local governments for the costs of setting up and operating the centers, as well as footing victims’ medical bills.
The central government has set a goal of having at least one center in each prefecture by 2020.
But in the Kyodo survey, only the Kyoto Prefectural Government responded that the subsidies would be sufficient to support sexual assault victims. Seven prefectural governments said they will nearly be able to cope with the effort, while eight said the funds will be insufficient.
A support center in Chiba Prefecture, launched in 2014, provides consultations during the day and keeps its doors open 24 hours for victims with urgent needs. Staff members take reports from victims and a doctor conducts checks for sexually transmitted diseases, collects evidence to specify a perpetrator and conducts procedures for emergency contraception.
The annual operating costs for the center, which is located at Chiba Medical Center in the city of Chiba, are ¥2 million to ¥3 million, funded by a subsidy from the city government and donations. But its finances are strained, with staff working voluntarily for a small fee, according to the center.
Due to the staff shortage, an obstetrician-gynecologist from the Chiba Medical Center sometimes takes calls at night while he or she is on duty.
“If a sufficient amount of wages is guaranteed, staff will be able to work for a long period of time and become experienced,” said obstetrician-gynecologist Reiko Okawa, who serves as chief of the center. “For such centers to operate stably, constant financial support from the state and local governments is essential.”
But victims are not the only ones who need support, said 44-year-old Chie Kudo, who was a victim of sexual assault when she was 8 years old.
Staff members suffer substantial stress offering consultations to help the long-term recovery of many sexual assault victims, both physically and mentally.
Kudo, who lives in Oita Prefecture and currently gives lectures on the issue, said it took her more than 20 years to overcome the incident after suffering from hyperventilation triggered by flashbacks and social phobia.
“Despite the shortage of human resources, there are many counselors who quit due to health problems caused by stress,” she said. “I want the state to create a system to provide support not only for victims but also for counselors.”
Lawyer Juri Yukita, who is well-versed in sexual assault cases, said the new state subsidies will make it easier for local governments to prepare and improve one-stop assistance centers, but pointed out many of them have to develop systems to offer consultations and secure staff on their own.
“In order to create a system where victims can receive the same level of support nationwide, the state needs to prepare a law on sexual assault victims that would serve as a basis to back the move,” Yukita said.