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Winnie Li: 20th anniversary of Good Friday Agreement also anniversary of my rape in Belfast

In April 2008, Winnie Li was among a group of Mitchell scholars who visited Northern Ireland as a 'promising young leader' but whose life was changed forever by a violent sexual assault. She explains why the marking of the peace deal will always have a painful meaning for her

Author Winnie Li who was raped in Colin Glen Forest Park in 2008
Author Winnie Li who was raped in Colin Glen Forest Park in 2008
Author Winnie Li
Then American President Bill Clinton and wife Hillary meeting George Mitchell scholars, including Winnie (second from right), who were all studying in Ireland at the time in April 2008
Author Winnie Li
Winnie Li with fellow George Mitchell scholar Desha Girod in Dublin

My newsfeed has been alive for days now with the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement - what it means to us in 2018, its impact and legacy. But despite being American and living in London, I carry a uniquely personal and painful legacy tied to this date. Because the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement is also the 10th anniversary of my rape in Belfast, when I visited as a former George Mitchell scholar to commemorate the peace process in a series of public events.

In April 2008, at the age of 29, I was invited to a televised symposium, cocktail party, and gala banquet, where politicians like Bertie Ahern, Gerry Adams and George Mitchell himself reflected on the necessities of reconciliation and dialogue.

I met with other Mitchell scholars and other 'promising young leaders' like me, both American and Irish. And then, on the Saturday after those busy days, I decided to go for a hike on my own, following an 11-mile trail which would start in Colin Glen Forest Park and finish at Cave Hill, north of the city.

I never made it past Colin Glen.

Because that afternoon, I was followed by a 15-year-old boy who then violently assaulted and raped me, when there was no one else around.

And that single event changed the rest of my life. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder immediately shattered my sense of self, leaving me with agoraphobia, flashbacks and panic attacks. I could barely set foot outside my flat. I was unable to work and, even after my rapist was convicted and sentenced to eight years in 2009, the depression and anxiety continued. It took years to rebuild my self-confidence and my career.

And 10 years on, when most of my friends are starting families and buying property, I can look back and see how fundamentally my life trajectory was changed by what happened to me in Colin Glen on that afternoon.

But those are the consequences of a violent rape, not just for me but for so many victims of that kind of crime. Which is why it pains me to witness the callous, disbelieving comments that members of the public often make about cases and their victims - comments muttered in everyday conversations, or posted online anonymously, or written in columns by people who have no lived experience of sexual assault themselves. In the 10 years since my assault, the lack of public understanding around the reality of sexual violence has never failed to shock me. And the cruelty of others towards rape victims, around questions of truth and justice, always makes me despair.

The truth is that nearly every rape survivor carries around a secret, painful knowledge of the day when we were sexually assaulted. We don't generally speak about it, but we will silently note the accumulation of years.

And inevitably a date in the calendar rears up which brings with it sadness and solitude, anger at the person who did this to us, a sense of loss at what that crime cost us. These anniversaries are not the kinds we commemorate publicly. They are private anniversaries, often acknowledged with reluctance and dread. Some anniversaries we celebrate, others we mourn.

So, in contrast with the very public conversation around the legacy of the Good Friday Agreement, this year, I will privately weigh up the legacy of my Belfast rape - and there will be no one I can discuss this with. Because our society has yet not evolved a vocabulary or even a willingness to honestly address the reality of sexual violence, in a way that places survivors at the forefront of the conversation, that affords them the acceptance and credibility they deserve for everything they've been through.

Too often, when a woman tries to seek justice by truth-telling, there is still the victim-blaming, the judging, the claims that she is making this up - for what? For attention? For money? For revenge? What a petty and mendacious view of women and girls, rooted in a blinkered misogyny.

I've been through the hellish experience that is the criminal justice system for rape victims. The only thing that propels you through that nightmare is the desire for justice, and the knowledge that what happened to you was the truth. Nor would the police or Public Prosecution Services allow a case to progress to a trial if they did not believe there was sufficient evidence to convict.

So, the stumbling block appears to be public opinion (the jury being made up of members of the public) and the overriding misperceptions that so many people have about sexual violence. And yet, we will never start to clear up those misperceptions if we don't allow victims and survivors the space to tell their stories, without being judged.

Part of what aided my own recovery was the ability to write about my trauma. In September 2009, the Belfast Telegraph published an anonymous piece I wrote. I credit it with a dawning realisation that even though my life had been indelibly damaged by the rape, I could use writing to somehow come to terms with that damage.

Years later, this led me to write my novel Dark Chapter, which is a fictional account of my rape and its aftermath, told from the perspective of both victim and perpetrator.

Since my own rapist pleaded guilty on the morning of the trial, I decided I needed to write a trial scene in my novel, in order to truly dramatise what a rape victim has to go through in the name of justice. I observed a number of rape trials in London and Belfast, and I was disgusted by how the process of 'justice' requires victims to be disbelieved, undermined and blatantly mocked by the defence barristers, while in full view of the public.

More recently as an activist, I've worked with survivors who have gone through the criminal justice system, only for their accused to be acquitted in the end. They cite these experiences as demoralising, damaging, often shaking their faith in our public institutions.

So, considering the legacy of GFA20, I find it ironic that we pat ourselves on the back for ending sectarian violence, when we talk about sexual violence in such a different way. Why do we often deny or downplay its very existence when it continues to affect so many lives? Both types of violence have their impact. They are both traumas that can leave psychological and physical scars, which affect generations of families, which have financial consequences.

If we compounded the number of rape victims over a population, we would find a large swathe of our society diminished by the blight of sexual violence. I know how long it took for me to recover from my rape, and I know it takes other victims far longer.

If anniversaries lead us to contemplate the meaning of these events, years later, then this is my public reckoning on the notion of progress and reconciliation: We cannot call ourselves a civil society if we do not afford victims of sexual violence the space to tell their truth, and be believed.

Ten years from now, I hope this will have changed for the better.

Dark Chapter by Winnie M Li is available at all good bookshops, £8.99

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