A rape survivor is speaking out against those who stigmatise others for not wearing a face mask, explaining that the experience of feeling her mouth covered triggers difficult memories of her sexual assault. Georgina Fallows, a 29-year-old solicitor, has waived her right to anonymity in order to raise awareness and encourage others to think twice before verbally calling out others who aren't wearing a protective face covering in public.
"For part of my rape, he had his hand over my mouth – as a result, anything over my mouth, even an oxygen mask, can trigger a flashback," Georgina told The Guardian. "[It's] hugely distressing. Physically, it feels like I’m back there again and he’s raping me and I am dying." She, along with seven charities, has now written to Justin Tomlinson, Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work urging the government to launch a public awareness campaign around face mask exemptions.
Georgina has been challenged over not wearing a mask multiple times and said that each time it happens, it brings back painful memories for her. Georgina added she's since avoided public transport, meaning she's been unable to see family members who live beyond walking distance. "You wouldn’t look at me and know I’d been raped, but I was, and it’s a huge problem for me. I spend most of my time trying to forget what happened to me. I don’t need to be challenged about this three or four times a day, just trying to live my life. All it does is remind me of something I’m desperately trying to forget."
Katie Russell, national spokesperson for Rape Crisis England & Wales, told Cosmopolitan UK that sadly this isn't an uncommon experience for survivors either. "A number of victims and survivors of rape, child sexual abuse and other forms of sexual violence have told us about the serious difficulties they have wearing face coverings – often because their mouths and noses were covered, or they were choked or smothered, as part of the abuse and violence they experienced. Covering their face and nose now can trigger flashbacks, panic attacks and severe anxiety."
She added, "‘Severe distress’ is already recognised by the Government as a legitimate exemption from the mandatory use of face coverings in public spaces and is specified as such in the law... not everyone is able to wear them, for a range of different reasons, and legitimate exemptions aren’t always visible or obvious."
The charity are now urging people to show compassion, empathy and awareness of those who’ve experienced severe trauma. "Please don’t assume that anyone without a face covering is selfish, stupid or careless," said Russell. "There is no justification for abusing strangers whose personal circumstances you do not and cannot know."
Other charities, including Mind (for those seeking support for mental health issues), Sense (an organisation supporting people with complex disabilities) and Alzheimer's Society (the UK’s leading dementia charity) are also trying to spread the message that some are exempt from wearing a face mask for a variety of valid reasons, and have co-signed Georgina's letter. "We are all agreed that a badge/identifier is no substitute for greater public awareness," part of it reads.
Hidden Disabilities UK have launched a sunflower lanyard scheme to subtly indicate that the wearer is exempt from wearing a mask for valid reasons, however some have raised concerns that this system is being abused as those purchasing a lanyard do not need to provide any evidence of being exempt. The charity say they've made this decision so as not to exclude people who have yet to be formally diagnosed with an invisible illness.
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Richard Kramer, Chief Executive of Sense, additionally told Cosmopolitan UK: "We've heard lots of reports of disabled people, and those supporting them, being challenged for not covering up. These experiences cause distress and anxiety, and lead many disabled people to feel they have to stay at home, where they become isolated."
He added that the charity welcomes the government’s introduction of ‘exemption cards’ but said more must be done to raise public awareness of them, along with who is exempt from wearing face coverings so that disabled people feel supported.
Rape Crisis have suggested that while some shops and public transport companies are displaying reminders that there are legitimate reasons people may not be wearing masks, that this should be happening more consistently across the board.
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