Engage – ‘I was just a little girl trying to survive’ – Emma Lewis on her own experience of sexual abuse
Following Sexual Abuse and Sexual Violence Awareness week, Emma Lewis, Victims and Survivors Consultative Panel Member for the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, shines a light on her own experience of sexual abuse. As the Inquiry publishes a further 50 accounts shared by survivors, she emphasises that without listening and learning from these experiences, sexual abuse will continue to persist.
My life story is hard to believe. I suffered horrendous sexual abuse as a child, then my stepdad died when I was 14 and my mam when I was 20.
As a little girl I had to quickly learn how to survive on my own and my teenage years were spent trying to avoid the trauma of my childhood. But through all the years of suffering, there were a few beautiful rays of light – people who tried to help in my darkest moments, those who listened when I needed to share, and those who gave me the opportunities that have led me to where I am today.
Memories from my childhood are hazy at best and as time goes on, the more positive ones are starting to disappear. I still have glimpses of joyful moments, such as getting a Christmas present I really wanted – a pair of cowboy suede boots with feathers on the side, or a hot summer where we went blackberry-picking only to be chased by cows and falling over, laughing uncontrollably.
My parents were alcoholics and sometimes I would come home from school to find blood splattered up the walls and drunk strangers all over the house. Other times I would have to call at every pub in the town to see where my mam was, then let myself into my house by using a knife to flick up the handles on the inside of the windows.
The sexual grooming by a close family member began slowly and went on for years. Sexual touching was disguised as game-playing, ‘find the penny under blankets’, as the penny was placed in increasingly inappropriate areas. The “game playing” quickly progressed to tasks that became more extreme, and whenever I begged for it to stop I was met with bribery, blackmail and cruelty. The sexual abuse escalated over time to a terrible act which caused severe physical damage to me when I was just six years old. He coldly threatened to do it again if I ever told anyone but I don’t remember him abusing me again. He might have done, but that horrific event blocked any memories as my brain tried to protect me.
As time went on, life at home became more unstable, volatile and unsafe. At around seven I was going to school with bumps and bruises I couldn’t explain away. After years of being on the radar of social services, I was assigned a project worker who collected me from school on a weekly basis to do fun things like baking and arts and crafts. I loved those joyous moments of comfort and safety. But things didn’t work out and I was taken by the police and placed into care late at night, with nothing but the clothes I was wearing.
I thought being placed into care would shock my mam and stepdad into not drinking anymore and I would only be there for a while, but I stayed in care till I reached 18.
I disclosed the abuse I’d suffered when I was in my second foster home. The case went to court and my abuser was found guilty but there was no closure, just guilt, shame and sadness. I felt I’d betrayed my abuser – I loved him and knew our relationship would never be the same again.
In my teenage years I desperately wanted to be loved and accepted, but instead I had distressing thoughts, behaviours and relationships. Feeling useless, worthless and pathetic became my default setting. I still feel like an imposter and I know the abuse I suffered has resulted in my low sense of worth. Even though I’ve grown comfortable with this part of myself, it’s something I have to work on regularly; everyone’s healing journey is different.
In my adult life I’ve become a member of the Victims and Survivors’ Consultative Panel for the government’s Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse and I’m founder and chair of the Roots Foundation Wales, a charity which helps support young people in care and care leavers.
Research by the Inquiry shows that the impact and lifelong effects of childhood sexual abuse are as damaging as, or even more damaging than the abuse itself. Of the 6,000 victims and survivors who courageously came forward to share their experiences with the Inquiry’s Truth Project, almost all described some kind of impact, on their mental health, education, job prospects or relationships.
I am immensely proud of the work I have done in my adult life. I am not defined by my experiences, but just like those who shared with the Truth Project, I have contributed to something bigger, something positive. Today, the Inquiry has published a further 50 accounts shared by victims and survivors.
I have listened to the harrowing accounts of other children who were sexually abused, who were ignored, silenced and failed by institutions and their families. Perpetators of sexual abuse rely on our naivety and our silence. As children, we might not have had the words to describe what was happening, let alone the courage to speak out; many victims don’t tell anyone for years, decades, sometimes their whole lives.
If we don’t support victims, listen to their voices and take real steps towards tackling child sexual abuse, we will never erase this stain on our society.
For help and support, you can access information on a range of organisations signposted on the Inquiry’s support page
About The Author
Emma Lewis is Victims and Survivors Consultative Panel Member for the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. Emma (pictured) leads a team of development workers and volunteers who support young people leaving care to ensure they get the help they need.
The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse’s – Truth Project heard from over 6,000 victims and survivors before it came to a close in October. All accounts shared made an important contribution to protecting future generations of children, helping to inform the Inquiry’s Final Report, due to be published later this year.
Picture (c) The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.