Thriving after trauma: The inspiring stories of survivors of sexual abuse and grooming

5 min read

Sammy Woodhouse had a happy childhood, growing up in a close-knit family in Rotherham. But then, aged 14, she met Arshid Hussain, now known to be the ringleader of a drug-dealing criminal gang that abused teenage girls. “Once I was inside his world,” Woodhouse recalls,“ it was very difficult to get out.”

Then 24, Hussain was nothing like the stereotypical paedophile she had been warned about – the “fat old man who would pull up in a van and offer you sweets.” He was “good-looking, really muscly, well-dressed.” He made her feel special and showered her with gifts: flowers, jewellery and clothes.

Woodhouse saw him as her boyfriend and thought they were in love. But he isolated her from her family and subjected her to almost daily violence. He would rape and beat her, sometimes until she passed out, or threaten her with a gun to her head.

Aged 15, and pregnant, she finally managed to escape Hussain in 2001 when he was imprisoned for a violent offence. But it took more than a decade for her to realise she had been groomed and abused: “The word ‘victim’ made me feel really weak and vulnerable. Then a social worker said: ‘Well actually, I think you’re a survivor.’ And I thought: ‘OK – that, I can deal with.’”

So began Woodhouse’s journey towards justice. She reported Hussain to the police, but was dismayed by what she regarded as their “lazy attitude” to seeking out evidence. She says they also refused to consider DNA from her son, fathered by Hussain, which to her represented clear proof of statutory rape below the age of consent. So, she gathered her own evidence – medical, social care and school records documenting the impact of the abuse – and approached a newspaper reporter with her testimony.

The published story, in which Woodhouse remained anonymous, led to a police investigation into all historic cases of sexual abuse in South Yorkshire, and an independent inquiry into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham. The inquiry exposed the huge scale of grooming in the town and the collective failures of authorities to address the crisis. The police, it found, “gave no priority to child sexual exploitation, regarding many child victims with contempt and failing to act on their abuse as a crime”.

In 2015, an “absolutely terrified” Woodhouse testified against Hussain in court. He was convicted of 23 charges against nine victims and sentenced to 35 years in prison.

Hearing the verdict “was an amazing feeling”, she says. “I thought: ‘I can walk out that courtroom with my head held high and I can move on with my life.’”

Woodhouse decided to waive her anonymity to campaign publicly for sexual abuse survivors. “I just thought: ‘Why am I hiding? I’ve got nothing to hide from.’ While we hide and are afraid, that gives [the abusers] power.” Since then, she has written a memoir, and fronted a moving BBC documentary exploring the plight of children born from rape and their mothers. In the film, she met fellow survivors and travelled to Rwanda, one of the few countries that has specialist support services for children born from rape, following the 1994 genocide in which sexual violence was used as a weapon of war.

I just thought: ‘Why am I hiding? I’ve got nothing to hide from.’ While we hide and are afraid, that gives the abusers power

The UK needs to do much more, Woodhouse argues, to support people like her firstborn son, who as a schoolboy struggled to come to terms with how he had been conceived. “As a victim of exploitation, I have rights in law to [access] support services, but for my son, there was nothing.” She has also campaigned to strip rapists of their parental rights since Rotherham council contacted Hussain in prison in 2018 offering him a say in her son’s care.

Another key goal is getting Sammy’s Law passed, a bill that would clear the criminal records of child sexual abuse survivors for crimes they were coerced into committing. After getting into a fight with a girl at school that she says was caused by Hussain, Woodhouse was convicted of assault. “Thousands of us have been left with these records, and it’s really difficult when applying for jobs.”

Much of Woodhouse’s campaigning work is unpaid and she has received death threats for speaking out about abuse; her address has also been shared publicly. But she is determined to enjoy the future with her sons (now aged 22 and 17) and two-year-old grandson.

“I’ve sacrificed my life [for the activism.] But I’ve got no regrets. Launching a campaign and taking on powerful and dangerous people, the government, the system, and starting a national debate, is such an adrenaline rush. It’s addictive.

Main image: Owen Richards

People in the UK who have been impacted by the issues mentioned in this article can access help from the 24-hour freephone National Domestic Abuse Helpline, run by Refuge, on 0808 2000 247, or the rape and sexual abuse support line run by Rape Crisis England and Wales. Other resources are listed here 

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