The fight for racial justice and the struggle to end sexual violence are inextricably linked.
Racism, the patriarchy, power and privilege are all actors that meet at an ugly intersection, where Black women — who have more interactions with police than other women — are particularly vulnerable: sexual violence is the second most widely reported kind of police misconduct (following excessive force, which is the first) and, as such, women of color are most at risk.
This link, between racism and sexual violence, is what activists Tarana Burke and Monica Ramirez so clearly spoke to last week, as part of the launch of the Survivor’s Agenda, a multi-racial coalition that puts survivors in front of the conversation about sexual violence and public safety.
Survivors of sexual violence, they say, particularly those of color, should be leading the conversations about their needs and the needs of their communities, informing policy and catalyzing prevention. As Tarana and Monica explain, listening to survivors “does not mean that people should ‘study’ or ‘interview’ them. Rather, survivors are uniquely positioned to propose solutions, and help shape the vision for what a safer world looks like.” Listening to survivors has a comparable ethos of listening to Black and minority voices calling for widespread change. It’s a message I wholly subscribe to.
For several years, starting at the age of six, a trusted family friend sexually abused me. And like most kids who are abused, I was terrified. I carried that secret alone, and didn’t tell anyone what had happened until I was a teenager. Then, ten years ago, as part of my own personal journey, and to help add my voice to a larger shattering of silence, I joined other survivors and began sharing my story publicly.
The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement protests both police brutality and racially motivated violence against African Americans. It has also exposed a thinly veiled systemic racism that has forever existed in the United States and in many other places around the world.
BLM also seeks to amplify voices that for too long have been silenced, and put Black leaders at the forefront of the dialogue around race, while holding the government and the private sector accountable for fair representation across all levels. Many BLM activists also call for a reallocation of resources, proposing funds and focus be shifted from local police departments to local efforts in housing, health and education — wherein specialists are often better equipped to care for the needs of a population.
To effectively address sexual violence, Tarana and Monica rightly refute the argument that moving funding from local police will further endanger survivors. Instead, they explain, the police is not always a safe option for victims of sexual abuse, not only because the police can be directly involved as offenders, but also because historically, they have failed at effectively responding to sexual violence.
In the U.S., the CDC estimates that one in four girls and one in 10 boys experience some form of sexual abuse in childhood. One in five adult women have been raped in their lifetime. Two to three percent of men experience sexual assault, with members of the LGBTQ community being especially at risk.
The numbers are astounding. They are why sexual violence is often called a silent pandemic. And of the many lessons I’ve uncovered in my more than two decades dedicated to this cause, these are among the most important:
Sexual violence is a problem everywhere. Globally, up to 38 percent of girls and 21 percent of boys have experienced some form of sexual violence in childhood, but not a single country has succeeded in effectively addressing it.
Prevention is essential to ending sexual violence. Fewer than half of all children ever tell anyone about sexual violence or abuse — so without prevention, we’ll never stop this pandemic.
We must put survivors at the center. The silence around sexual violence — everyone’s silence, including that of institutions, communities, and individuals — helps perpetuate the problem. Survivors are in a unique position to break this deafening silence, destigmatize it, and educate the public, advocates and decision makers on its impact, while working with scientists to discover and deliver solutions that actually work.
Last year, my organization Together for Girls undertook an important task: the global mapping of what works to prevent sexual violence against children and adolescents. We wanted to know what had been rigorously evaluated to deliver results.
We discovered there are 15 specific evidence-based interventions that prevent sexual violence against both boys and girls. Many of these interventions have been informed by the experiences of survivors. All of them have been tested by scientists, and proven to have lasting impact:
(In 2016, the CDC undertook a similar effort primarily focused on adult women, to examine what works to prevent sexual violence. Similarly, they found the 15 interventions that work for adult women are — in many cases — comparable to those that work for young children and adolescents. No such comprehensive mapping has yet been done for the LGBTQ community.).
We also discovered that not one of these interventions had been seriously implemented at scale, anywhere. Instead, interventions like these are often either ignored, underfunded, or delivered in a scattered, uncoordinated and inadequate manner, to comparably mediocre results.
Although our study delivered this grim realization, it also gave us hope because:
These interventions are both relatively easy to implement and not costly. This is especially true as compared to the cost of responding to rape and child sexual abuse. (The CDC estimates the cost of rape alone is $122,461 per victim. In the U.S., medical costs, lost productivity and criminal justice activities make the national price tag on the lifetime economic burden of child sexual abuse to be $9.3 billion. This does not include, of course, the significant personal costs — economic and otherwise — to survivors.)
They make clear that ending sexual violence goes beyond what responsible and fair police and justice systems can — or should — be deployed to do. Prevention needs to happen in our communities, involving, children and youth, families, educators, public health experts and especially survivors.
They can help put an end to child and adolescent sexual violence. Now we need to help our allies, wherever they are and everywhere they may be, advocate for the implementation of these interventions. And we need to do so while engaging survivors of any form of sexual violence, because their voices, like Tarana and Monica say, are fundamental to leading the change.
Let’s get to work. Together.