From the outside it looks like any other large Victorian terrace in a leafy north Sheffield street – but this house is different.
It’s not a family home – far from it. This is where traumatised women who have been raped and sexually abused come to share their stories and receive support and counselling in an attempt to rebuild their lives and heal their scars.
This is the home of Sheffield Rape and Sexual Abuse Counselling Service where, behind the anonymous front door, volunteers are being trained and manning phone lines and brave women are speaking about their ordeals – many too horrific to even contemplate.
Victims of child abuse, stranger attacks, historic and domestic rapes and have all been helped by SRASACS staff.
One survivor said: “Going to the centre made me feel safe, but more than that I felt loved. I was believed and accepted. The women I met there were amazing.”
The service is run entirely by women, for women and was set up in 1980 as a feminist collective.
It is currently based in a large homely terraced house, sparsely furnished with sofas and cushions but welcoming and calm.
SRASACS offers support to girls and women aged over 13, who have experienced rape or sexual abuse at any time in their lives.
It is overseen by manager Meera Kulkani and has a core team of nine counsellors including volunteers.
Currently, free face-to-face counselling and a telephone helpline are offered two days a week but the team has just secured funding from South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner’s small grants scheme to extend its services.
The helpline operates on Tuesdays from 1pm until 8pm and Thursdays from 1pm until 8pm.
The women also offer drop-in sessions for ‘survivors’ before they begin their counselling. If they don’t want counselling they can meet others for a chat or take part in creative activities on Thursday mornings from 10am-12noon.
“We operate on a self-referral basis,” said Meera.
“Anyone can give us a call and if no one is available to speak to them there and then, they can leave a message and we will get back to them as soon as possible.
“We help women from all communities but particularly want to reach out to women from the black and minority ethnic community.
“Rape and sexual assault is a huge taboo, whatever community you come from, but it is harder for these ladies to reach out.”
The service is funded by Sheffield Council and the Ministry of Justice, along with other smaller grants.
Volunteers for the helpline must be over 21 and are trained in-house where they take part in an eight week course. Counsellors must be already qualified.
“We cover basic counselling skills, empowerment and supporting people over the phone,” said Meera.
“The course also touches on rape and sexual abuse and we look at some of the effects they have on the women.”
The service is hoping to recruit more volunteers and also wants to build up awareness of its work and fundraising activities to boost its bank account.
Meera also wants to start offering support by email.
But it’s not just the victims who need support.
“We care about our volunteers and we are supportive of them too,” said Meera.
“If someone has had a difficult call, we try to be there for them and talk it through – we work together as part of a team.”
The service has four part-time staff and is overseen by a board of five.
Those ringing in for counselling have their details taken and are then put on a waiting list.
Meera said: “Women come in for an initial assessment and stay on the waiting list until a counsellor becomes available.
“We can make courtesy calls to them in the meantime but it all depends on what the woman wants – it’s about giving them back some control.”
Those coming in for counselling have 20 sessions for 50-minutes to an hour once a week.
“When they have finished one-to-one counselling, we are hoping to run a survivors group and an eight-week course in self esteem.”
So who are the customers?
“We have elderly women ringing us who are way into their 60s, 70s and 80s and they have kept the attacks on them secret from childhood.
“This is something that affects women of all ages – there are no barriers.
“We help women from a whole variety of different cultures and backgrounds.”
The services the women access is up to them.
“Some come in for counselling while others decide to deal with their issues on the telephone,” said Meera.
“A lot of women can’t even face looking at another person when they are telling their story.”
“The service is part of the national Rape Crisis network and we take helpline calls from all over the country. Counselling is for those women living locally.”
So, how do you help a woman who has been raped?
“We just listen and let that person talk. We try to build up a relationship. We get one-off callers but then we also have regulars, some of whom have been ringing in for many years - we have people that ring every week.
“We offer support for those who want to make a complaint to the police and try to accompany women to appointments including the clinic for sexually transmitted infections and GP surgeries for pregnancy testing.”
Plans for the service’s future include setting up a support group for older women, outreach work and counselling sessions in different environments.
“It’s a difficult funding environment at the moment because of the economic climate so we have to be sharper,” said Meera.
“Work in this field has come a long way. It was only 50 years ago that people closed their ears and turned a blind eye to sexual attacks and it is still kept quiet and swept under the carpet.
“But there are people out there to talk to and there is no pressure to report the crimes against you to the police, unless a child is at risk.
“We are completely led by the client.
“These women have gone through this awful experience but we want them to know that they can speak out.
“The perpetrators are often fathers, brothers, uncles or other members of the family.
“When it’s in the family it’s more difficult to talk about because it can really devastate lives.”
She added: “Sheffield Council has been very supportive but it would be a tragedy if a women’s service of this nature were to disappear because there wasn’t the funding _ so many women are affected by rape and sexual abuse and there is so much more we could be doing in areas such as trafficking, pornography and child sexual exploitation.”
Contact SRASACS helpline on 0114 244 7936.
Business calls 0114 261 8990 or to find out more about volunteering.