Survivors of sexual abuse took to the streets across New Zealand yesterday in an unprecedented public protest against new rules making it harder to get ACC-funded counselling.

At least eight survivors of chronic childhood sexual abuse joined 170 people in a rally at Auckland's Albert Park, followed by a march to the city's ACC branch. Others marched in Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin.

A 44-year-old mother-of-three said it was the first time she had ever stood in public as a survivor.

"It's actually feeling really good," she said. "I've had no symptoms since I had therapy and worked through very hard things in recovery. I'm working supporting people with mental illness and have three gorgeous children and have made a life for myself."

But she said changes proposed by the Accident Compensation Corporation could block access to counselling for others.

The changes, taking effect from October 27, require sexual abuse victims to be diagnosed with a mental illness under the US Diagnostic and Statistical Manual Version 4.

ACC chief executive Jan White said on Friday that counselling would then "focus on providing clinically-based treatment over a shorter time frame, typically around 16 treatment sessions".

At that point, ACC-appointed assessors would decide whether there was a need for more treatment.

In contrast, several survivors at the Auckland rally had had up to five years of counselling.

"For me it was on and off for years," said Parnell businesswoman Andrea McGregor. "I'd had 15 years of sexual abuse. It takes a long time for 15 years. Sixteen weeks is nothing like enough."

The mother-of-three said the abuse she suffered as a child cost 25 years of her life, when she suffered drug and alcohol addictions, self-harm and a "false diagnosis" of bipolar disorder which barred her from getting life insurance or a mortgage.

"I'm now working with people just starting to open up," she said. "I know they don't have a mental illness but they are told they're crazy."

Another survivor said even her five years of counselling cost much less than it would have cost the Government in coping with the psychological effects on her four children if she had committed suicide.

North Shore psychotherapist Christine Hatcher, on her first march since the 1981 Springbok tour, said she would not take any more ACC-funded clients because it was against her code of ethics "to put survivors of sexual abuse through more trauma than they have already been through".

Dr Gudrun Frerichs, also from the North Shore, said that in 20 years of psychotherapy she had never been wrong in assessing whether a client would get ACC funding for sexual abuse counselling - until a tightening in the past three or four months.

"Now I can't say whether someone will get funding or not," she said. "You have to wait for ACC. It might take up to six months for a decision."

ACC general manager Denise Cosgrove said 16 weeks was not a "cap" for survivors of chronic or complicated abuse, but all survivors would be assessed at 16 weeks "to see what their progress is".

She said the law had always required a diagnosis of mental injury caused by the abuse, but ACC "hasn't been consistent in applying that in the past".

* Sexual abuse changes

Mental illness diagnosis required.

Counselling will focus on up to 16 sessions.

Longer-term counselling will need independent assessment.