The world lost a powerful advocate for social change and equality yesterday: Nelson Mandela of South Africa. Mandela was a constant advocate for progressive policies and addressed controversial and difficult topics headon. His messages and activism have been a source of inspiration to many movements, organizations, and communities. Mandela will be greatly missed but we can continue to learn from his life and his actions. This week’s blog is dedicated to the great work that he has done and inspired through his life. Below are some of his quotes that I find to be both inspirational and related to the work that anti-sexual violence advocates do on a daily basis and the journey that many survivors take to heal.
Some of the most powerful moments I have had while doing this work is interacting with people on the hotline or in the hospital or accompanying survivor speakers to share their stories with audiences. Seeing the resilience and strength that people have is inspiring and fuels me to continue to do this work. Many of them have told me that they weren’t sure if anyone still cared or that they thought for sure they would never regain trust in people. However, many baby steps eventually turns into a long journey and I like to remind people to look at how far they’ve come when they are feeling discouraged. It is so easy to focus on the negative and setbacks that will certainly occur. Recovery and healing isn’t perfect and we shouldn’t expect for it to look that way. There will be errors and behaviors that are counterproductive towards healing. That’s perfectly okay. It doesn’t mean that survivors don’t deserve support from friends or family members or access to services. In fact it means the opposite; we should lend them greater support during the times they are struggling. We all need to be reminded every once and a while about our achievements, how they are inspiring, and how we can continue on and accomplish even greater things.
I was particularly struck by this quote when I ran across it considering the fact that so much information has come out about the abhorrent conditions in US prisons and the rates of sexual violence that exist both between inmates and perpetrated by the guards. The Prison Rape Elimination Act was created in 2003 in a way to address the high prevalence rates and lack of services that survivors were receiving. Since its creation, there have been more reports and studies done around this topic and an increase in organizations who are seeking to better the conditions. According to a study by US Department of Justice, 4% of federal and state prison inmates experienced sexual violence in the past years. About half of those incidents were perpetrated by other inmates and the other half were perpetrated by a staff member. Much like in greater society, inmates who identify as LGBTQ experience violence, sexual and otherwise, at greater rates than their heterosexual and cis peers. A recent report about immigrant detention centers also highlight the high rates of sexual violence that occur and the fact that LGBTQ detainees are victimized at a rate 15x higher than their peers. Our ability to look past or justify the violence that happens to people in prisons and detention centers shows a major flaw in our society and ability to show compassion to all the people in this country.
Working to end sexual violence means addressing the structural systems of racism, in addition to the other systems of oppression that exist. A recent trending hashtag, #FastTailedGirls, started by @HoodFeminism was meant to create discussion around the stereotypes that young black girls and women are hypersexual and therefore deserve or want the sexual violence they experience. This is not just the experience of a handful of individuals but something that many black women and girls remembering hearing about either their or others behaviors. Children learn that they bring on sexualized violence by the clothes they wear, dancing, being ‘seductive’, etc rather than learning that adults are responsible for their own behaviors. Studies have shown that 40-60% of black girls experience sexual violence before they turn 18, which is a staggeringly high number. People of color are also much less likely to report the violence to police or to seek support services through agencies, such as rape crisis centers.
Our society frequently minimizes the impacts that violence has on people of color Making the needed changes to make services more accessible will require more than a change in policy. It requires a cultural shift so that we view violence as unacceptable regardless of who is affected and how they identify. It requires looking at systems of oppression, our own privileges, and working with communities to provide better services, lower barriers, and address the inequalities that exist.
It is telling that Mandela has picked education as the most powerful weapon. By giving people the knowledge they need in order to better themselves and question the inequalities that exist, we can hope to create a better world and society. Rape crisis work started with a focus on serving female survivors and educating about male perpetrators and female survivors. This has shifted greatly in the recent decades to recognize the vast impact that sexual violence has on male, trans*, and genderqueer survivors as well. This was not an easy shift for all anti-sexual violence advocates and there is still much needed work to truly make services better accessible. With greater education and advocacy work, we can create these services and encourage members of society to recognize the impact that sexual violence can have on people of any gender.
We also need to look towards education and prevention in order to reduce and bring an end to sexual violence. Our messaging has dramatically shifted from ones that tell women not to engage in certain behaviors and to avoid being rape to ones that tell men not to rape to telling individuals what they can do to end sexual violence. We need to move away from a society of victim-blaming and move towards one that focuses on controlling the actions of those who perpetrate sexual violence. Only by making it more and more difficult for people to get away with being sexually aggressive will we truly start to reduce sexual violence. This means looking to each community and community member to play a part. The more we are able to educate people about the impacts of sexual violence and the change that each person is able to have on their community, the more change we will be able to create.