Victims of sexual assault should be allowed to speak and be believed.
So says Jo-Anne Bates, the Sexual Assault and Family Violence Centre's Wimmera co-ordinator.
She says how the community reacts to victims speaking about their experiences makes a big difference in their ability to recover from them.
Ms Bates' comments follow recent uproar over changes to the Judicial Proceedings Reports Act (1958).
Since February 7, under this act, some victims of sexual assault that identify themselves publicly are considered guilty of an offence.
On Sunday, Attorney-General Jill Hennessy committed to reform the act this year, so victims can tell their stories without requiring a court order.
The Victorian government will host a series of roundtables with victims this month to discuss the act's proposed reforms.
"This legislation is another way of allowing survivors to inform their community they have been sexually assaulted," Ms Bates said.
"We've been an advocate for this through various channels, including the Centre Against Sexual Assaults. People should be empowered to tell their stories and not be penalised for it," she said.
Ms Bates said when victims chose to speak out, they regained power over their lives.
"When someone has been sexually assaulted, they lose control. (Talking publicly) allows them to feel back in control, and to feel that their story and their rights are being heard," she said.
"It is really, really difficult for people to come forward with their story. People who have been assaulted telling their story and not being believed will add to their trauma, and it will give more power to the offenders.
"In small towns and remote areas, if someone makes a disclosure, everyone will judge them for doing that against someone that may be seen as a good person."
Ms Bates said making the community aware of sexual assaults remained a barrier to helping victims.
"You are working against many years of people being told not to speak up and not to believe survivors," she said.
The SAFV provides family violence therapeutic counselling, treatment for children with sexualised behaviours and crisis care.
"We noticed when we went into the first round of restrictions for coronavirus, people weren't coming forward," Mrs Bates said.
"The difficulty is they are living in homes where the perpetrator may be, so they may have found it harder to make disclosures.
"Once we came out of those restrictions, our service certainly noticed an increase in referrals, and unfortunately that's also for current sexual assault. This time with the restrictions, people are coming forward still, and I think that's partly because governments are letting people know that if they are in an abusive relationship, they can leave their homes to seek support."
Criminal Statistics Agency of Victoria data shows there were 47 sexual offences reported to police in Horsham Rural City in 2018, down from 59 the year before but comparable to the previous three years. Not all victims of sexual assault choose to report the incidents to police.
The SAFV's Horsham office can be contacted on 5381 1211.
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