The number of sexual assaults in the Bay of Plenty reached a five-year high in the first three months of the year.
A sexual harm support service and police believe it may be becoming more socially acceptable for victims to speak up and a local women's advocate says sexual violence can cause "lifelong trauma".
New Zealand Police victimisation time and place data online showed 47 sexual assaults and related offences in the Bay of Plenty between January 1 and March 31. Nationally there were 701.
The totals were more the highest they have been over the same period in any of the past five years in both the Bay of Plenty and nationwide.
The data has since been updated to include April, when there were an additional 11 sexual assaults and related offences in the Bay of Plenty. The nationwide total increased to 916.
Bay of Plenty child protection and adult sexual assault Detective Senior Sergeant Lindsay Pilbrow said police investigated all complaints thoroughly.
"People living or visiting the Bay deserve to be safe and feel safe," Pilbrow said.
"Whether a report of sexual assault results in a prosecution or not, our approach to reports is victim-centred and our focus is always on ensuring the right supports are in place."
Police had been working with local partners to help prevent assault and a range of other offences and Pibrow acknowledged it could be difficult to seek help.
"We know coming forward to report a sexual assault can be incredibly difficult so we want to reassure the community that we put victims at the centre of our approach," he said.
"Police [are] committed to investigating all complaints thoroughly and we continue to encourage anyone who has been sexually assaulted to speak to us."
He said it was too soon to determine whether there would be any significant change to the total number of reported sexual offences in the region this year.
Tauranga Women's Refuge manager Hazel Hape said positive steps had been taken in recent years around community awareness and support to sexual harm victims.
"Sexual violence is a lifelong trauma," she said. "It's hugely traumatic for women and children that we've seen and supported.
"It can really f*** their lives up, to put it bluntly, if they're not supported.
"There has been a movement around the world encouraging women and men to speak out about their experiences; to hold abusers to account and get support."
The refuge catered to those who had faced domestic violence but Hape said most had also suffered from sexual violence.
Tautoko Mai chief executive Blair Gilbert agreed it was becoming more socially acceptable for victims to speak up about trauma.
"Year on year, we've seen massive increases of people coming forward but still know only a small number that come forward," he said.
The sexual harm support service had been seeing people come forward with assaults that happened as long as 20 years ago.
Gilbert said issues of power were the biggest drivers of sexual harm but there had been an increased concern around pornography.
"Violent pornography is so much more acceptable now for everybody. We're concerned some harmful messages are going out through what's getting watched," he said.
Along with the support it provides throughout the Bay of Plenty and Waikato regions, Tautoko Mai runs programmes educating young people about how sexual relationships relate to respectful relationships.
A sexual harm and crisis support coordinator for Family Focus Rotorua, who asked not to be named, said they saw more people seeking support after the Covid-19 lockdown last year.
She speculated the #MeToo campaign, media campaigns, the Royal Commission and time to think about abuse over lockdown may have spurred people to come forward.
There was plenty of stigma around sexual harm but shame was one of the biggest reasons why people didn't come forward, she said.
"If someone does talk to you about something that's happened to them, one of the biggest things is to make sure they're always believed and supported," the coordinator said.
"Shame is a really big thing as to why people don't come forward. If someone feels brave enough to speak to you, that's a real privilege."
Gilbert and Hape applauded the Government for its recent work in the sector and the resources it was making available.
Prevention of family violence and sexual violence minister Marama Davidson announced on Budget Day the Government would invest $132 million from into community and iwi-led programmes to reduce family and sexual violence.
"The impacts of family violence and sexual violence are complex, entangled, multifaceted, interconnected and intergenerational," she said.
Supporting existing and successful community-led programmes was the focus, including those that helped perpetrators.
Where to get help
If you're in danger now:
• Phone the police on 111 or ask neighbours or friends to ring for you.
Where to go for help or more information:
• 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
• It's Not Ok: Information line 0800 456 450 www.areyouok.org.nz
• Shakti: Providing specialist cultural services for African, Asian and middle eastern women and their children. Crisis line 24/7 0800 742 584