Sophie-Ann was sexually abused by her older cousin over 30 years ago and kept the devastating secret to herself for decades, holding in all the stress, anxiety and pressure from the abuse. Until 2017, when she found a higher purpose, realising what happened to her wasn’t right and she reported the abuse to police.
She decided to speak out about her ordeal in a bid to help others and to shine a light on the sexual abuse that goes on behind closed doors – particularly in the Asian community. Sophie-Ann is Chinese and for her and many others, sexual abuse is not disclosed, discussed or ever dealt with.
“In Asian communities, people often hold onto old Asian patriarchial societal beliefs,” she explains. “Males are dominant, listened to and valued over females. Respecting elders is expected; we are told to never question authority and to be a ‘good girl,’ – be silent, be submissive and do what others tell you,” she says. “This makes it harder for victims to speak out.”
Sophie-Ann wants that to change and so has bravely shared her story to help break the cycle and prevent it from happening to other young girls, of any ethnicity.
An abuse of position and power
24 years older, Sophie-Ann’s cousin, Tin Kai, took advantage of her when she was living with him and under his guardianship. He was supposed to care for her – instead he subjected her to over a year of harrowing abuse.
She says that Tin Kai abused his position of power in the family, grooming her over a long period, twisting traditional Chinese medicine so that she felt shame and fear. He also emotionally manipulated and coerced her.
Sophie-Ann was left in a constant ‘hyper-alert’ state, the fear and shame of the sexual abuse causing her huge stress and anxiety. “My health and self-esteem were in a downward spiral, affecting my studies. I tried to forget and suppress the trauma, but the physical, mental and emotional strain haunted me with sleepless nights, panic attacks, flashbacks, indigestion and heartburn, all of which affected me for many years.”
She saw countless doctors and sought therapies constantly to relieve the physical stress and anxiety. Finally, at breaking point, she sought psychological help.
She says it took her a long time to find the courage to speak up due to the stigma of seeing a psychologist.
“My family didn’t want to shame the family name”
When Sophie-Ann finally told her family they weren’t supportive, applying immense pressure on her not to go to the police. They were concerned about Tin Kai going to jail, and the ongoing shame that would bring to the family name.
“It’s about taking a step back from you own world, to see the bigger picture. It was important to hold the perpetrator accountable so he could take responsibility for the harm caused and get the appropriate help.”
“You think your family is going to be there to support you and when they aren’t it’s heart-breaking. Some family members were immediately supportive, while others were the opposite.”
The hierarchy in an Asian family is very patriarchal and family name is considered more important than anything, including the individuals within the family,” she says.
“Their initial reaction was ‘disbelief he’s such a good person and has been so good to us throughout our lives.’ Most members of the family tried to pressure me into not going to the police. I was torn between my family and what was right. My willpower was weakening and that’s when I contacted HELP. They were wonderful and came with me to the police and were there by my side during the investigation.”
Fortunately, most of Sophie-Ann’s siblings acknowledged that the perpetrator’s actions were wrong and eventually participated in the investigation.
“The police and HELP were very supportive. I could tell they believed me – the police said to me ‘there may not be much evidence but it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.’ They did find the evidence they needed and that gave me the courage to continue.“
Tin Kai was arrested for his offending all those years ago and pleaded guilty to five charges of indecent assault. He was sentenced to five months’ community detention and ordered to pay reparation. “There is a Chinese proverb: if you don’t want anyone to find out, don’t do it,” says Sophie-Ann.
“I am in the transition stage with this coming to an end and the world is my oyster which is liberating, exciting and a little daunting at the same time. However, I am grateful for going through this difficult journey because it helped me find my voice and learn to love and respect myself because of it – we all matter.”
Sharing her story to help others
For all survivors of sexual abuse it is extremely hard to disclose to anyone what they have suffered. But as an adult, Sophie-Ann knew she had to come forward.
She waived her own right to statutory suppression – automatically and permanently given to all victims of sexual offending – so she could share her story with others.
“I want people to know that sexual abuse happens in every ethnicity, and to help prevent and break the cycle,” she said. “Sexual abuse statistics are shocking in New Zealand and there needs to be less shame and stigma for survivors.”
“I also want to empower other victims of sexual abuse to find their purpose and inner strength to seek help and report it to the police. Sexual abuse happens in all ethnicities, but you are not alone and there are many people who can support you. Telling others doesn’t make you weak: it takes courage.”