"Sexual violence is surrounded by wordlessness"

Putting words to one’s experience of violence is a first step in being able to move on in life, explains Cecilia Bödker Pedersen, one of LiU’s Alumni of the Year. She is secretary general of Storasyster (Swedish for Big Sister), an organisation for people subjected to sexual violence.

Cecilia Bödker-Pedersen Cecilia Bödker Pedersen works with questions relating to people's life situations and vulnerability.  Charlotte Perhammar

When asked to describe her private self, Cecilia Bödker Pedersen keeps it brief: “100% city dweller. Live in a small flat on Södermalm, Stockholm. Love the pace. Don’t like cooking. Have lots of energy. Bought a house in the archipelago two years ago.”

Just as she mentions the house, she slows down a bit.
“The house is my refuge, where I repaint, putty the windows and plant flowers.”

Happy with her involvement

Cecilia Bödker Pedersen“I’ve always been involved; I’ve reacted to injustices and spoken out, since I was a child”, says Cecilia Bödker Pedersen. Photo credit Charlotte PerhammarOtherwise she works basically all the time, she says, with questions relating to people’s life situations and vulnerability. She seems happy with this.
“I’ve always been involved; I’ve reacted to injustices and spoken out, since I was a child.”
Her interest in society led her to LiU’s programme in social work.
“It wasn't an obvious choice; I’m one of the first in my family to get a university education. I loved my years at LiU; the programme showed me how society works – and doesn't work.”
“It taught me broadly about social problems in Sweden and the world.”

Her engagement led to many different types of experiences – everything from student union work at her school in Linköping where she grew up, to being chair of the local chapter of Save the Children, lay judge at the Stockholm district court, and ecumenical accompanier in Palestine.

Huge responsibility on civil society

Shadows Human beings Photo credit AlexLinchSince 2014, she has been secretary general at Storasyster, a Stockholm-based organisation that works to reduce sexual violence and help people subjected to sexual abuse. And it is for her work at Storasyster that Cecilia Bödker Pedersen has been named one of the Alumni of the Year.
“During my years at Storasyster I have many times been surprised at the inexplicably large responsibility that Swedish government bodies place on civil society when it comes to taking care of victims of sexual crime”, she says.

Words can help

Every year, 2,500 people aged 13 and above get in touch with Storasyster. Most are women. Storasyster helps them with filing police reports, putting words to their experiences of sexual violence and abuse, and possibly finding them long-term support. Guilt and shame are recurring theme in their conversations, and the women often take responsibility for the abuse occurring, or for not resisting.
“Sexual violence is surrounded by wordlessness. A first step in moving on is to put words to what you’ve experienced, so that you can understand and process it.”

Rays of hope in recent years

Cecilia Bödker PedersenIn recent years, Cecilia believes she sees some rays of hope in the work to combat sexual violence. Photo credit Charlotte PerhammarIn recent years, Cecilia believes she sees some rays of hope in the work to combat sexual violence.
She mentions MeToo, the Swedish consent legislation from 2018 which has resulted in more guilty verdicts in sexual crime cases, and a focus on men’s violence against women during the spring of 2021.
“Especially after MeToo in 2017, women got a voice; many contacted us. Some were older women who talked about things they were subject to as children or very young. They bore an enormous sadness; all their lives they had carried these experiences for which they had never got help or understanding.”

Few sexual crimes reported

But even if more people are getting in touch with Storasyster, far too many do not know that they can get support and counselling after a sexual crime. And most occurrences are not brought to the attention of the authorities. According to the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention (BRÅ), just 10-20 per cent of sexual crimes are reported.
Cecilia is working to change this. Much time is devoted to securing funding for Storasyster’s operations, and on public relations. every year the organisation submits a report and hosts a national conference on issues relating to sexual violence. This year’s theme is police reports and legal process.

Problems with government bodies

As a former lay judge, Cecilia Bödker Pedersen has inside experience of the Swedish legal system, and has great respect for it. But in her work at Storasyster, she encounters shortcomings in the actions of both the legal system and of other government bodies.
“Most people get a good reception initially, for instance from the Police and the healthcare system. But then many end up in a vacuum where they get no information about the progress of their case, and investigation times are often long.”

Professional reception

Cecilia Bödker PedersenIn her leadership, Cecilia takes care to ensure that the employees have the suitable training to manage the requirements and questions of the affected. Photo credit Charlotte PerhammarIn her leadership, she takes care to ensure that the employees at Storasyster have the suitable training to manage the requirements and questions of the affected. A member-driven organisation must not become emotionally driven, it must base itself on professional expertise and science, she argues. The people who work on the ground are mainly social workers, behavioural scientists and psychologists. In addition to these people, 140 trained volunteers take calls from all over Sweden, either dealing with the call themselves or forwarding it, depending on the type of help the caller requires.
The callers can remain anonymous if they wish.
“Unlike government bodies, we have no obligation to report, even if we always report if a child contacts us and we can gather enough information to make a report. Also we try to help the child find a reliable adult in their vicinity who they can talk to.”

Giving hope

Sometimes the stories are very difficult to take in. Here, professionalism and collegial support are required. Cecilia talks about finding a calm in the conversation with the caller, and about seeing the possibilities of each conversation.
“We can listen, we can arrange help, we can strengthen people to move on with their lives. In this way, I believe we give people hope.”

Translation: Martin Mirko

Charlotte Perhammar
Charlotte Perhammar
Charlotte Perhammar
Charlotte Perhammar
Charlotte Perhammar

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