I won’t be silent

mlk-quote   By Danielle Bonner

In May 2014 I was thrilled to be accepted into a summer school in Kosovo, a country I had longed to visit and see how it was overcoming the effects of conflict. Unfortunately this experience became overshadowed by two incidents of sexual violence towards participants on the programme.

Half way through the programme it came to my knowledge that one of the female participants had been an alleged victim of sexual assault by a perpetrator who was also a programme worker. Days later a second female participant was an alleged victim of sexual assault as she returned to the programme hotel.

When I asked the programme organiser to have a copy of their health and safety policies and challenged them on the handling of the situations I was accused by them of being hostile and aggressive.

Aside from witnessing the trauma experienced by these two victims what was strikingly shocking to me was the lack of due care and support given to these victims (although the programme organisers may dispute this!).

I subsequently decided to leave the summer school early and on my return home myself and a number of other participants wrote a letter to funders and programme guest speakers advising them of our experience and to make them aware to the fact that the programme did not seem to have any health and safety policies for the protection of its participants.

Today I was shocked and disgusted to have received an email from this very same (so called) organisation advising me of their new 2015 programmes.  Going from only running 2 programmes in 2014 to 17 in 2015! I can only pray that they have learnt from their omissions and now have H&S Polices in place and that their staff are skilled and professionally trained on handling potential incidents such as the one that arose during my programme.

So now I write this post because I want to share with others some of the biggest lessons I have learnt from this experience both in terms of selecting exchange learning programme’s and on the issue of sexual violence:

  • Always research an organisation offering summer schools abroad, ask them about their organisational code of conduct and health and safety policies before you apply and especially if this is a fee based programme do not give them any money before you have made checks.
  • Reach out to former participants and inquire about their experience don’t always rely solely on what the organisation says for-example their social media pages and the organisations website.
  • Sexual violence is facilitated through the social attitudes and omissions of both male and female. Therefore the turning of a blind eye to the issue of sexual violence only serves to facilitate its continuation.
  • We need to start challenging social views and start better supporting victims of this crime. Please read my blog piece entitled “Sexual Violence the Unconformable Truth” about the issue of sexual violence following this experience.

Please also feel free to send in any questions you may have on this experience.

Sexual Violence the Uncomfortable Truth

 

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By Danielle Bonner

Sexual violence is never an easy topic to discuss yet it is a crime and social issue which exists in every section of society effecting the lives of both men and women. With Global statistics however showing that 35% of women have experienced sexual violence in their life time, is it not time to ask is enough importance placed on ending sexual violence against women?

Here I discuss the issue with the opinion it’s about time we get over our social unease, call out sexual violence against women, recognise it for the human rights violation that it is and start to understand the personal and social damage this crime causes.

An edited version of this feature entitled “Time to end the violence” was first published in the Donegal Democrat Paper on Thursday 4th December 2014.

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Around the world people are engaging in 16 Days of Action an international campaign to raise awareness and help end violence against women. There are various forms of violence committed against women and one of the most prevalent is sexual violence.

As a young women it is particularly unsettling to be confronted with the knowledge that according to World Bank data “Women aged 15-44 are more at risk from rape and domestic violence than from cancer, car accidents, war and malaria”.( UN DPI/2546A, 2011)

By definition sexual violence means any non-consented sexual act or activity imposed upon a person. While the violence itself can take various forms “including but not restricted to: rape, sexual assault, child sexual abuse, sexual harassment, rape within marriage/relationships, forced marriage, so-called honour-based violence, female genital mutilation, trafficking, sexual exploitation, and ritual abuse.” (Rape Crisis Organisation)

Sexual violence never seems to be an easy topic to openly discuss due in part to its sensitive nature, a situation which seems to only feed the crimes prevalence. This year I was given a wakeup call to this harsh reality when I witnessed first-hand the negative and unsupportive attitudes towards sexual violence when two female friends within a week became victims of a sexual assault.

While I had heard of victims experiencing negative attitudes and victims being made to feel blame or even shame for what happened to them when reporting this, it was still difficult to imagine it actually happening. The situation I witnessed however saw one victim being accused of making up the sexual assault, while another was asked could it have been a mistake. They questioned her drinking and her behaviour which lead to the incident. Attitudinal responses which served to add further emotional distress to the victims and scaring them not to report the incident.

This experience produced a range of emotions. While I did my best by listening and believing and being there for them, I could not help but feel powerless and ill prepared on how best to support them. These emotions soon became an inquiring interest into finding out about its frequency, how to support victims and the prevention of sexual violence.

As I began researching I was shocked by the statistics. In Europe a recent study revealed that 1 in 3 women in Europe say that they have experienced physical or sexual violence since the age of 15 by a partner or non-partner. While 45-55% of women have experienced some form of sexual harassment. (EUAFR, 2014)

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This is not dissimilar to other global research which has shown 35% of women worldwide have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime.  Of which between 20% and 50% of women indicated that their first sexual experience was forced.  (World Health Organisation) Although some country figures are shown to be as high as 70% women having experienced physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime from an intimate partner”. (UN Women)

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While further research in Europe shows that only “1 in 3 female victims of partner violence and 1 in 4 victims of non-partner violence report their most recent serious incident to the police or some other service”. (FRA 2014)

For example in Ireland around 33% of incidents are reported in Ireland to the police or another formal authority. (Donegal Rape Crisis Centre, 2012) While 90% of sexual violence perpetrators are known to their victim (National Rape Crisis Statistics, 2011). Such statistics highlight victim’s insecurity over coming forward and the fact that perpetrators are commonly known to them.

Time for social action

The harsh reality of these findings leads me to pose a number of questions:

  • Is sexual violence against women being taken seriously?
  • Does social attitudes only recognise certain acts and behaviours as sexual violence?
  • Why are victims made to feel blame for what has happened to them?
  • How should we best support a victim of sexual violence?

Answering these questions may be challenging but in doing so I believe that they could act as the beginnings of a wider social debate which will help to end sexual violence against women.

I strongly believe there is a great need for us to start actively engaging in conversations about the issue, educating ourselves on what sexual violence is and the impact it has on victims. We should not wait to be confronted by it to realise the social, personal and emotional damage it causes.

By engaging in an open conversation we will help break down the negative attitudes and barriers which allow sexual violence to continue and instead start to ensure its prevention.

While we should also know how to support victims of such violence therefore should someone confide in you that they have been a victim of a sexual violence we should know that it is vital to listen in a non-judgemental way, believe them and reassure them of your trust and total confidentiality.

And while you may also find out information and services for the person, you must however let the person decided for themselves what steps legal or otherwise they wish to take.  If the victim is under 18 years old however you are obligated to report the incident to the authorities. (Rape Crisis Centre)

If you or any one you know have been effected by sexual violence you can find support with; 

Ireland
  • Rape Crisis Help Ireland, 24 Hour Helpline on 1800 778888
Northern Ireland
  • The Rowan, Freephone helpline 0800 389 4424
Mainland UK
  • Rape Crisis helpline on 0808 802 9999
  • Rape Crisis Scotland Helpline 08088 01 03 02
  • Victim support on 0845 30 30 900