A new specialist sexual assault referral centre in Northern Ireland could help many more victims come forward and make it easier to prosecute long after the event, it was revealed.
Around nine in 10 who suffer rape or other sexual abuse do not report for help but the head of the unit in Antrim said they will be more likely to attend because public awareness of the service is increasing. Evidence gathered can be held there for up to seven years to allow for prosecution of alleged offenders later.
The Rowan Sexual Assault Referral Centre offers a range of services and support under one roof to anyone across Northern Ireland, whether the attack happened recently or in the past.
Clinical director Dr Olive Buckley said: "It will give people a window of up to seven years where if they want to proceed down the justice route they will not lose the evidence.
"It gives them time because often victims of assaults are very traumatised and it can be difficult to go to the police immediately.
"This way we will be encouraging victims to report to police but it is giving them space and time to do so."
The centre at Antrim Area Hospital has been open since early May to referrals from the police but is available to those who self-refer directly from Friday. It has dealt with around 150 people.
Previously victims had to attend emergency departments or GPs surgeries, which did not specialise in sexual assault cases, and there could be delays before they attended a sexual health clinic. Drugs to protect against HIV or unwanted pregnancy have to be administered shortly after the attack to be effective.
Dr Buckley added: "People have not been aware of the serious medical complications that may follow sexual assault such as hepatitis, HIV or gonorrhea and when we see them with the police referrals at the same time (as evidence is being gathered) we can offer them a sexually transmitted disease test and treatment if they are at risk."
Travelling to the centre could require more effort than accessing local services but the medic said she was confident there would be no problems attending, adding the benefits of a specialist centre were recognised no matter what the problem was.
"If you have got a head injury you go to the Royal, if you have a serious sexual assault you come to Antrim," she added.
Services at the Rowan include:
:: Forensic medical examination by a specially trained doctor. Evidence can be stored until the individual makes a decision whether or not they wish to report to the police;
:: Emergency contraception;
:: A course of treatment to help prevent the onset of HIV in those at risk following an assault;
:: Screening and treatment for sexually transmitted infections;
:: Emotional support;
:: Help in reporting to the police;
:: Referral on to counselling and/or other appropriate services;
:: A 24 hour advice and information line.
Stormont health minister Edwin Poots said sexual violence had a devastating impact on victims and their families.
"Our collective aim should be to keep all children and adults safe from harm and to prevent them being abused. However, we sadly cannot prevent it all the time and it is vital that when it happens, we have services in place to help them deal with, and hopefully overcome, their experience."
Justice minister David Ford said the housing of medical and forensic services under one roof would help improve standards of care available to victims.
"Importantly, along with being a safe and caring environment, a key element of the Rowan will be the ability to obtain significant and timely evidence aimed at bringing the perpetrators of these dreadful crimes to justice," he added.
PSNI chief constable Matt Baggott said the experience of being a victim was difficult.
"However, the Rowan Centre will provide a complete and co-ordinated package of care to promote recovery and wellbeing and greatly enhance the investigative process," he added.