By Mary Kate Andris, YWCA South Hampton Roads President and CEO
The #MeToo movement undoubtedly raised awareness of sexual harassment, assault and abuse. Beyond the headlines and heroism, however, remains a sad reality – too many women in Hampton Roads still live in fear, faced with years of emotional and physical scars.
While #MeToo outed dozens of men who abused their power – thanks to the courage of women through social media, blogs and television shows – many more women have no voice or are afraid to share their stories for fear of retaliation or shame.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Just as the spring harkens a new beginning, this is an opportunity to build on a national movement to create community action to end this societal scourge.
The numbers are telling. Last year, a local 24-hour crisis counseling hotline (757-251-0144), available to anyone affected by sexual assault, domestic violence, stalking and human trafficking, fielded 432 calls about sexual violence. This free service, a collaboration between YWCA of South Hampton Roads, The Genieve Shelter, the HER Shelter and Samaritan House, provides callers with trained crisis counselors providing emotional support, safety planning and referrals.
Nationally, someone in the United States is sexually assaulted every 98 seconds, according to Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN). On average, 68 percent of sexual assaults go unreported and one in five women report being raped, RAINN estimates.
So, what can we as a community do about this? It starts with dialogue and education.
- We must educate our families and our workplaces about sexual abuse and assault, starting with an understanding of both the legal and emotional consequences. According to RAINN, the effects of sexual assault means that a victim is three times more likely to suffer from depression compared to the general population, 13 times more likely to abuse alcohol and 26 times more likely to abuse drugs. For our community that means a large strain on social services, broken families and unproductive workers. It’s heartening to see companies throughout the Hampton Roads introduce training to teach appropriate behavior. The same needs to happen in neighborhoods, colleges and community centers – knowing what’s appropriate, knowing where to go for help, and learning about the life-long effects of sexual assault and abuse.
- We need to learn how to talk about sexual abuse and assault. #MeToo opened the doors to discussion but it’s up to our community to get comfortable talking about the uncomfortable. There are lives at stake – we cannot refuse to confront reality.
- We must develop the courage to step in and help. A bystander reporting abuse. A family member listening. A friend taking in a victim. A neighbor reporting suspicions. These actions, when taken together, can stop the silence that has kept repugnant behavior from occurring for far too long.
To help raise awareness of sexual assault, I invite you to register for and attend the annual Walk a Mile in Her Shoes event April 27. Men are invited to step up by walking a mile in downtown Norfolk wearing high heels.
It’s time to go beyond #MeToo and take a stand against sexual assault and violence. It’s abhorrent and immoral behavior that strikes close to home for far too many. Together, as a community, we can break this cycle and create our own us-too movement.