Are we letting down gang rape victims?

Compensation struggle: Katrina Keshishian speaks of her terrifying ordeal on ABC's 7.30.

Compensation struggle: Katrina Keshishian speaks of her terrifying ordeal on ABC's 7.30. Photo: ABC

When Katrina Keshishian was 20 years old, three men lured her from a family party in Sydney, drove her 25km away to the suburb of Windsor and then took turns raping her on the banks of the Hawkesbury river. When they were finished, they dumped her at a service station and drove away.

Keshishian reported the attack to police and her rapists were found and charged. But due to the impact of trauma associated with both the rape and the expectation of cross-examination in a courtroom, Keshishian ended up dropping the charges. As a result, they each ended up spending only approximately six months in jail. Those men have been released now, and their names are suppressed because of legal restrictions. For all intents and purposes, they have been able to get on with their lives.

Unfortunately for Keshishian, her trauma is ongoing. In addition to the nightmares and flashbacks she's experienced since the attack, she's also developed severe anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Like many survivors of sexual assault, she's found it difficult to maintain even a semblance of normality. In a conversation conducted over text message, Keshishian told me that as a result of the PTSD, it's been difficult to hold down steady employment. Friendships have faded away she says, because "it's hard to have a friend that is depressed all the time and has too much anxiety to go out to public places." Her romantic relationships have not fared much better. Shortly after the rape, Keshishian met someone. The pair married quickly, but the relationship disintegrated not long after. "I was looking for someone to love and protect me after going through such a harrowing experience, [but] I just found it too hard to let people in after what I had been through," she says.

Katrina Keshishian: Met a "really nice guy".

Katrina Keshishian: Met a "really nice guy". Photo: ABC

These are common experiences for survivors of violent attacks, particularly sexual ones. But Keshishian's trauma has been further compounded by the NSW State Government inability to pay her the Victims of Crime compensation she is entitled to. Despite filling all the necessary paperwork, Keshishian has been left to pay her own medical and psychological care bills - an enormous challenge for someone unable to work as a result of anxiety related to their attack.

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In an astonishing twist, Keshishian has now been informed that her original financial entitlement has been slashed following the passing of NSW state legislation last year which significantly reduces the amount of compensation awarded to victims of crime. The Victims Rights and Support Bill 2013 succeeded in replacing the existing compensation scheme with the Victims Support Scheme. Prior to this bill, Keshishian was eligible for up to $50,000 of compensation - a nominal fund when you consider the emotional and psychological barriers she's faced since the attack. But because this legislation will be applied retroactively to cases which occurred prior to 2013, the compensation she's entitled to has dropped to as low as $15,000.

In response, Keshishian chose to bravely go public as a survivor and outline her case in an online petition. With the help of Change.org, Keshishian's story has been shared and supported by over 118,000 people. They have joined with Keshishian in calling on the NSW State Premier, Mike Baird, and the NSW Attorney General, Brad Hazzard, to honour their obligation to properly compensate the victims of crime whose cases have still not been finalised. Additionally, they're calling on the NSW State Government to overturn the legislation which diminishes the entitlements of these victims of crime and restore it to the former Victims Compensation Scheme. (You can sign Keshishian's petition here).

Keshishian's courage in coming forward cannot be overstated. Various studies indicate that up to 80% of survivors of sexual assault choose not to report their assaults to police because of fears they won't be believed or they'll be discredited. Of the survivors who do come forward, very few can expect their rapists to receive a conviction or substantial sentence. The legal system has not historically been welcoming to the survivors of sexual violence, and the social judgments of the rape culture that we currently live in has held them in no higher esteem.

But incredibly, Keshishian's story has inspired countless other survivors to come forward. In both public and private comments, Keshishian has encountered thousands of women who are opening up about their own experiences, some of them for the very first time. She tells me, "Coming out about this situation to the public has been a very positive experience. It has also been quite a healing experience because so many people are really listening. Other victims have now had the courage to stand up and tell their stories as well because of my strength and that just makes me so happy to know that I have helped them with their recovery."

Keshishian now wants to open a centre for victims of crime, providing a broad range of services including counselling, group therapy, therapeutic creativity classes and even educational courses and skills based learning to assist people in returning to the workforce.

"I think it is very much needed," she says. "A place where victims can go and meet others in similar situations and not be judged for what has happened to them. It's hard being a victim and not having anything in life like a job, relationship etc. So this could really help people with being able to move forward."

Keshishian has determined not to let the NSW Government steamroll her on this, and with the overwhelming (and growing) support of the public, she's looking increasingly likely to succeed. For me, the most powerful part of her protest has been the breaking of floodgates for other survivors who are finding mutual strength in speaking out. Too many survivors feel compelled to stay silent out of fear of the backlash they might encounter, or even subtle attempts to apportion responsibility to them. But rape is not something that happens to people arbitrarily - it is a course of action that rapists decide upon, and make a conscious choice to inflict on someone else. The more people empowered to express this, the better we will all be.

As for Keshishian, the future is beginning to look very bright. With her plans to open a centre for fellow survivors becoming more concrete, she says, "I intend on using all the hurt and pain from my life to help others gain control of their lives. I believe that everything happens for a reason, and the rape plus the publicity now has happened to me so that I can help people.

"I may have been a victim then, but now I'm a survivor and I want to help others to become survivors also."