Today is the start of Rape Awareness Week. Between January 2016 and January 2017 5865 people were the victim of sexual violence or abuse in New Zealand. Most of the victims were women aged 15 to 19. Research shows that one in five Kiwi women will experience a sexual assault as an adult. The problem is serious, and shockingly, only about 10 per cent of incidents are ever reported. Today the Herald shines a light on the issue in a bid to educate - and reduce the stigma around rape and other sex crimes.

Claire was raped.

Not just once, but over and over again.

She was raped by a man who lived in her home - a man she had trusted.

Now, she is sharing her story because she wants to lift the lid on sexual violence in New Zealand and help other survivors find their voice.

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For legal reasons the Herald cannot publish Claire's real name or reveal the identity of the man who started sexually assaulting and abusing her when she was just 12.

He is now in prison, sentenced to 16 years behind bars and must serve at least half of that before he becomes eligible for parole.

But for years he imprisoned Claire in a cycle of horrendous and repetitive sexual offending, fear and shame.

"I was sexually abused and assaulted from when I was 12 until I was 19 and I reported it to police in October 2015," she told the Herald.

"The abuse only stopped because I moved out of home... I thought I could move away from it, I thought that was all I needed but I was wrong; I was still haunted from everything that had happened and I wasn't really safe because the abuser was still living in my family's home."

Claire started suffering from anxiety and the night she had a severe panic attack she knew she could no longer live with her secret.

"That's when I decided it was time for me to speak up, I told my partner and we called the police."

In the 12 months ending January 31 this year, 5865 people were subjected to sexual violence.

Of those, 4567 - 77.9 per cent - were women and most were aged between 15 and 19.

And remember, that's only the reported incidents, which research suggests is only about 10 per cent of the total number of sexual violence offences occurring in our community.

Claire kept quiet about what was happening to her for years.

Like many victims, she felt ashamed, guilty, like she'd done something to deserve it.

And, she was terrified that if she did speak up - no one would believe her.

But her silence began to destroy her, and the night she had that panic attack was the start of her journey to freedom.

"After we called the police, it was about 2am, they came and picked us up and took us to the station to make a statement.

"Just from that night speaking up and finally telling someone helped me so much... One of the hardest things for me in coming forward was not knowing if the police would believe me, not knowing how my family would react.

"But I didn't want to feel ashamed any more."

NZ Herald stock image
NZ Herald stock image

Claire's journey wasn't easy, but she has no regrets.

She had to tell police, in graphic and intimate detail, everything that her abuser had subjected her to.

She then had to go through it all again in court, challenged and questioned by his lawyer and forced to repeat her ordeal in front of strangers - and her loved ones.

"It's been a good journey, a hard journey but a good one at the end," she said.

"I have no regrets at all about coming forward and to anyone else I'd say 'do it'.

Claire understands better than most people why other victims don't come forward - she's lived that.

"Sexual violence is a very taboo subject in New Zealand, people feel like it's wrong to talk about it," she said.

"The worst thing you can do is keep this quiet, that's just really wrong."

Claire encouraged anyone suffering in silence, whether their abuse was recent or historic, to come forward.

"Speaking up, reporting, changed my life so much," she said.

"I think the barriers for people reporting this stuff is that there are still people out there that make the feel like it's their fault.

"That's one of the reasons people don't speak out is that they feel they have done something wrong, that they deserve it.

"But it's not your fault... No one should feel ashamed or suffer any blame."

Victims didn't need to go straight to police, they just needed to disclose to someone.

"Reach out to whoever you feel comfortable with - police, a family member or friend - anyone," Claire said.

"And if you get shot down, don't stop there - go to the next person. There will be someone out there who will help you, you'll be surprised.

"There's so much more support out there than you will realise.

"There will always be people who don't believe you - my offender's family don't believe me... but you shouldn't let those people stop you from speaking up.

"At the end of the day, it is the best thing you can do for yourself - just go for it."

Sexual violence in New Zealand, by the numbers

• From July 2014 to the end of January this year 13,758 people reported a sexual assault to police.

648 in Canterbury
642 in Counties Manukau
576 in Central
566 in Auckland City
553 in Wellington
532 in Waikato
529 in Bay of Plenty
486 in Waitemata
458 in Southern
332 in Eastern
275 in Tasman
268 in Northland

• Between January 2016 and January 2017 5865 people were the victim of a rape or other sexual assault in New Zealand.

• Of the victims, 4567, or 77.9 per cent, were female, 10.9 percent or 639 were male. The remaining 11.2 per cent did not specify a gender.

•The majority of victims were aged 15 to 19.

• Of the ethnicities specified, European victims made up 36.3 per cent, Maori 21.2 per cent, Pacific Island 4.5 per cent, Asian 2.5 per cent, Indian 1.7 per cent.

• In New Zealand, up to one in three girls will be subject to an unwanted sexual experience by the age of 16. The majority of those incidences would be considered serious, with over 70 per cent involving genital contact.

• Up to one in five women will experience sexual assault as an adult.

• It is estimated that 90 per cent of sexual violence is committed by someone known to the victim.

• Reporting of sexual violence in New Zealand is very low, with an estimated 9 per cent of incidents ever reported to police.

(Source: NZ Police, Rape Prevention Education)

If you're in danger NOW:

• Phone the police on 111 or ask neighbours of friends to ring for you.
• Run outside and head for where there are other people.
• Scream for help so that your neighbours can hear you.
• If you are being abused, remember it's not your fault. Violence is never okay.

Where to go for help or more information:

NZ Police
The Harbour, for those affected by harmful sexual behaviour
Help Auckland 24/7 helpline 09 623 1700
Rape Prevention Education
Wellington Help 24/7 crisisline 04 801 6655, push 0
Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse
• Women's Refuge: Free national crisis line operates 24/7 - 0800 REFUGE or 0800 733 843 www.womensrefuge.org.nz
• Shine, free national helpline 9am- 11pm every day - 0508 744 633 www.2shine.org.nz
• Shakti: Providing specialist cultural services for African, Asian and Middle Eastern women and their children. Crisis line 24/7 0800 742 584
• White Ribbon: Aiming to eliminate men's violence towards women, focusing this year on sexual violence and the issue of consent. www.whiteribbon.org.nz