Content warning: Rape and sexual assault.
As the British teenager at the centre of the Cyprus gang rape claim launches her appeal, rape survivor Fern Champion writes about the trauma of being raped while on holiday – and why it's time that the British authorities and overseas governments listen to the voices of victims.
After a night out with friends in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, I’d woken up in a room I didn’t know, with a stranger’s fingers inside me. He raped me repeatedly that night, threatening to “really fucking hurt” me if I tried to fight back.
I got away as soon as it felt safe to and I decided to report what’d happened. I’d got the feeling I wasn’t this man's first, and I wanted to be his last. However, the police were frustrating throughout.
At the station, I was made to type out my statement in the main reception area. The woman working there told me: “If it is rape, you need to be explicit, you need to say penis and vagina.”
From there, I was taken to the hospital where hours later I saw a specialist doctor. She said: “I’m really sorry for what you’ve been through”, adding that I was the oldest woman she’d seen that day.
I was 23.
The male surgeon did tests on me – I don’t know what, I wasn’t really present. Then it was back to the police station, where I was questioned relentlessly. The woman officer asked me what I’d been wearing, how much I’d had to drink, why didn’t I fight, why didn’t I run, did I remember saying ‘no’. All the usual victim-blaming questions.
We were going round in circles because I didn’t know enough about my attacker. She asked “how do you expect us to find him?”, and I thought: “I don’t know, that’s your job.” It was about 9 PM and I hadn’t eaten or drank anything that day.
Once I told her this, she brought some water and biscuits, which I guess was nice. She then dropped me back at my hostel, saying: “I understand this has probably given you a negative view of this city, but I hope the next time you come here you’ll be more careful.” That summed up her attitude entirely. Either she didn’t believe me, or thought it was my fault, that I was a stupid girl who’d got too drunk and couldn’t take the consequences.
I had been due to fly to New Zealand, but I missed my flight and stayed in Kuala Lumpur to assist with the investigations. I just wanted my attacker brought to justice.
The police didn’t follow up several leads: they didn’t find the CCTV from the bars I’d been at that night, or ask questions of the door staff who I remembered seemed to know my attacker. I thought I’d had a breakthrough when I realised my phone had tracked my location on the night of the attack.
But the police – who I was dealing with via a helpful intermediary sent by the British Embassy – just didn’t get back to me. By the time they told me they couldn’t find my medical tests, I concluded it was all a shambles. I’d tried my hardest to work with the police, but the investigation was going nowhere, so I left. It was a relief to get away.
In New Zealand, I finally got a sexual health check – fortunately I got the all-clear – then spent a year on the rape crisis waiting list. I distracted myself with work, trying to recoup the cost of the flights, and with heavy nights out.
It wasn’t until I returned to the UK that the Pandora's box full of nightmares and flashbacks opened. I tried to get support but I was repeatedly told by various London Rape Crisis centres that their waiting lists were full, and by International Women’s Day 2018, I was again told there was no space for me.
I lost the plot. I was so baffled that this was the state of play for something like rape. As a society we abhor it, but we won’t allow everyone the support they need to recover from it. I was already prone to migraines, and they were now off the scale; I was being sick and losing my vision and having so much time off work.
Luckily, one boss came through, securing me trauma therapy, paid for by my employer. She was on my side when I was at breaking point, and nothing has ever meant more to me than her coming through for me.
The last update from the British High Commission was that my attacker is a Yemeni national who’s been placed on a wanted list. That was in October 2018. I accepted a long time ago that he’ll never be caught and I can’t really think of anything worse than having to endure a trial where I’d be asked all the same questions again.
When I found out about the Cyprus case, I was struck by the similarities.
Like the woman in Ayia Napa, my rape happened abroad and I also had a very negative experience with the police who clearly did not believe me from the start.
There’s a helplessness to the situation. I’ve tried every avenue to secure safer and more just outcomes for women like me and the girl in the Cyprus case; I’ve gone to my MP, I’ve been lobbying the government, I’ve started a petition.
But as long as the UK cannot intervene in other legal jurisdictions, women are left at the complete mercy of local police who are so prone to not believing us and mishandling these cases. So much needs to change and I want to keep fighting for it.
Sometimes I feel really strong and supported and confident in myself and other times I’m like, fuck me, this is impossible. I feel confident that the public attitude is shifting now – that we hear victims’ stories and believe them – however, we’ve got a long way to go. To stop this pandemic of violence against women, our governments need to have a huge look at how they are failing us. The time for change was yesterday and I can’t fucking wait.
The Malaysian police did not respond to repeated requests for comment. VICE UK will update this article if we receive a response.