Winnie LiImage copyright Winnie Li
Image caption Winnie Li has now written a book based on her ordeal and hopes to use her voice to help other victims of rape and sexual violence

It took American woman Winnie Li more than three years to bring herself to tell her parents that she had been the victim of a brutal sex attack.

“I knew the pain it would cause them to know their daughter had been violently raped, so I just decided not to tell them,” she said.

She was on a visit to Belfast in 2008, when the horrific attack happened during a hike in a forest park.

“It’s every parent’s worst nightmare,” said Ms Li.

In an interview with BBC Radio Ulster’s Sunday News programme, Ms Li said she felt she could not tell them because she was worried about how they would react.

“My parents live in California, I live in London. I had enough stuff to go through and to deal with emotionally, and I didn’t want to handle – as cruel as it sounds – or deal with their reaction,” Ms Li admitted.

“I was afraid they were going to say, ‘you shouldn’t have gone hiking on your own’.”

‘Nervousness’

In the months following the attack, she suffered from severe anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

She began to recover by writing an essay about the assault and aftermath, which was later published in a book.

At Christmas 2011, she gave a copy of it to her parents.

“I was really nervous about telling them, every survivor has to go through the nervousness,” said Ms Li.

“You don’t know how people are going to react, sometimes they’re not going to believe you and that’s so damaging.

“I didn’t think my parents weren’t going to believe me, I was afraid they were going to crumble, but I think because I was able to tell them in a coherent way and I’d been able to put my life together, it was better than if I’d told them the day after [the attack].”

Ms Li is now an active campaigner for other rape victims, and said using her voice to help others to talk about their experiences is still incredibly important to her.

‘Stigma’

“Every time I speak about it, someone else always comes up to me afterwards and says, ‘I was raped too,'” she said.

“Nobody knows what to say. There’s this moment of shock, and as society we need to be better equipped to know what to say and how to help loved ones.”

Ms Li has written a novel, Dark Chapter, based on her ordeal and those of other women, telling the story of a rape from the perspectives of both the victim and perpetrator.

She said she hopes that it will encourage more open and honest conversations about the subject of rape, which is often still treated as a “shameful stigma”.

“We’re still letting victims of rape down, but I think things have changed for the better,” said Ms Li.

“It’s not an easy journey – not everyone’s going to understand or react in the best way, but that’s the fault of our society not knowing how to deal with this issue.”

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