Erin's Story

"This wasn’t the first act of aggression I had experienced in my life. But this time I was 26. I knew what to do, and I wanted to pursue justice."

Erin Helfert was a master’s student when she returned to Morocco to research gender-based violence and criminal justice. Having been to the country several times before, she was fairly well connected and invited to a party at the home of a U.S. diplomat in Casablanca. During the party she was sexually assaulted by the housekeeper, a man she had met before. “I didn’t intend to become the subject of the very thing I was researching in Morocco,” she recalled. “But there I was.”

Survivor of sexual assault Erin Helfert poses in front of a black background
Erin Helfert turned to art to heal from her experience. Her perfromance Right of Passage was  selected for an international art festival in Tunisia.

At the time, Morocco lacked systems and resources to respond to victims of sexual violence. “Like many survivors, and many women, this wasn’t the first act of aggression I had experienced in my life. But this time I was 26. I knew what to do, and I wanted to pursue justice.” Armed with knowledge of the Moroccan criminal justice system and of the issue of sexual violence, Erin made three stops: the police, the consulate, and a doctor’s office.

Erin sought out the Moroccan police station in the area where the assault occurred to make a report. “I was talking to the police in a combination of French and Arabic,” remembered Erin. They were sensitive and trained, but they said there were no words for the things that happened to me, such as ‘fellatio,’ that I needed in the report. So they had me re-enact my own rape so they could figure out what to write. It didn’t come from a place of perversion, but it was painful all the same.” Erin also had saved her clothes from the night of the assault, which contained the perpetrators DNA, but unaware of the utility of the clothing for the investigation, the police did not accept the clothes as evidence.

 

At the American consulate she received just two papers: a list of lawyers and a list of translators. Support available at international consulates can vary by location, but their primary role is to connect American travelers with local resources or reach out to their emergency contact. Having a safety plan before you travel can help you feel more secure in the event that something happens. “I’m impressed with the work by Sexual Assault Support and Help for Americans Abroad (SASHAA). Sadly, I wasn’t aware of their work when this happened to me.”

Erin knew from her research that she needed to prove “forcible penetration” for Moroccan authorities to consider the assault a crime, but she was not offered a rape kit. She found a doctor who was able to perform pelvic exams and brought a copy of the police report to her appointment. “I calmly explained to him how he needed to find evidence of forced rape, including where on my body to look. He said that I, ‘wasn’t acting like I was raped.’ I said, ‘I’m just trying to survive.’”

The Moroccan authorities did arrest the perpetrator. “I had to sit across from [the perpetrator] and tell him what he did to me in front of the authorities.” However, the case was ultimately thrown out and the perpetrator was released. “I was told that there was no corroborating evidence.”

What followed was a five-year logistical and bureaucratic marathon. The Bureau of Diplomatic security became involved, because of the location of the crime and, likely, the connections Erin had made. They sent her DNA stained clothes to an FBI crime lab in the United States in 2009. For more than a year, Erin would go down to the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Diplomatic Affairs in Washington, D.C. and request that the evidence and FBI findings be sent back to Morocco, following the proper chain of custody. Finally, in 2011 it was sent to Morocco. After a DNA match and three years of legal proceedings—during which Erin defended herself in court—the perpetrator was found guilty. He was given a sentence of six years, and he remains in prison today.

“As an advocate and someone who actually received justice, sometimes I feel guilty. Not everyone gets that chance,” explained Erin. “But the DNA conviction made it worth it. My case went from being a one-off exception to the cause for systemic change in standards and practices.” Erin’s case was the first time Moroccan courts agreed to allow forensic evidence to be used by the prosecution in a sexual assault case.

The process was long and trying, but for Erin, it was also inspiring. She has continued her work in gender-based violence and expanded her work as an advocate for survivors. From hospital accompaniment, to late night phone calls with other Americans abroad, and large public lectures, Erin has remained fiercely committed to her work—but she’s the first to admit it isn’t always easy. “It’s my nature to want to protect and support people. I remember not receiving that support when I needed it. But there were times when I had to back away for my own self-care.”

Erin sought therapy through a sexual assault service provider. “Talk therapy with a trauma-informed therapist is so crucial. I tried other forms of therapy, but they didn’t get it.” When starting a relationship with a therapist, it’s OK to test the waters with a few providers before finding the right fit. It’s also important to communicate your concerns with your therapist so they can steer you in the right direction.

Today, Erin continues her work as a policy and advocacy advisor working on gender-based violence at an international development nonprofit. She is also working on a series of multi-modal performance and installation art that commemorates her path to justice. “Art allows me to just be me, to grieve my own unique experience—and to live again.”

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