Terry McLaughlin: Supporting those who support sexual assault victims | TheUnion.com

Terry McLaughlin: Supporting those who support sexual assault victims

Terry McLaughlin

The most dangerous place in the world for a woman is her own home, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Being quarantined with an abusive partner poses even greater risks, and as the stress, financial hardships and uncertainty of social isolation continues, we are seeing a rise in the cases of domestic violence and sexual assault.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness month, and it will be particularly difficult for victims to reach out for help this month due to the self-quarantine mandate. Women at risk ordinarily wait until they are alone to seek assistance. They wait for their abuser to go to work, or times when their children are at school and they can reach out to a friend or hotline. These options are closing down, as victims are unable to have private phone conversations when their abuser is home and monitoring them 24/7.

Katie Ray-Jones, the chief executive officer of the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233), described ways than an abusive partner can leverage COVID-19 for fear, isolation and manipulation. She cited one caller to the hotline whose husband was forcing her to wash her hands repeatedly until they were raw and bleeding. Another caller’s abuser threatened to kick her out of the house to increase her exposure to the virus.

While we are all feeling a responsibility toward those especially susceptible to this new disease — the elderly and those with pre-existing respiratory conditions — we should also be more alert to our friends and loved ones who we know or suspect are in abusive relationships, as they are especially vulnerable during this time of isolation.

Sheltering in place raises many questions for victims in need of assistance from city, state, federal and non-profit agencies. What impact does the pandemic have on police response calls to 911 from victims of domestic violence? Should a victim in need of medical attention risk going to an emergency room when hospitals are focusing on critical care for coronavirus patients? Are there protocols in place at shelters to avoid spread of the virus?

While resources during this national emergency are limited, victims are still encouraged to seek out shelters, hotlines, and counselors. Where walk-in service is no longer available, phone and digital communications are. If unable to make a call themselves, Ruth Glenn, CEO and president of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, advises victims to turn to a trusted friend or family member who can make a call to a hotline on their behalf. And in an emergency, they should call 911.

Locally, Women of Worth’s office is closed, but the organization continues to operate its shelter, Hetty’s Haven, and to respond to crisis calls, emails and messages at 530-264-7337, info@womenofworth.org, or on Facebook and at IHaveWorth.org.

Other local resources are: Community Beyond Violence 24/7 Crisis Line – 530-272-3467 or https://cbv.org; Stand Up Placer – 1-800-575-5352 or https://www.standupplacer.org; National Sexual Assault Hotline – 1-800-656-4673. Anyone who is unable to speak safely can log onto thehotline.org or text LOVEIS to 22522.

This is a real and compelling issue being faced around the world. The Australian government reports that Google has registered the most searches for domestic violence help in the past five years, with an increase of 75%. There are worrying reports from Italy, Spain and other countries. France has reported a 36% increase in police intervention for cases of domestic violence in Paris since lockdown measures were enacted. Inspired by a similar plan in Spain, the French government has started telling victims to go to drugstores, and if they cannot speak openly in the store they can simply say the codeword “mask19” to the pharmacist, who will then contact the police.

We can all participate in a visible means of protest against many of the misconceptions that surround sexual violence, and in support of its victims, on April 29 — Denim Day. The Denim Day story begins in Italy in 1992. An 18-year-old girl receiving her first driving lesson was taken by her driving instructor to an isolated road, where he pulled her out of the car, removed her jeans and forcibly raped her. She reported the assault and the perpetrator was prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced to prison. Years later, he appealed the conviction claiming that the sex was consensual. The Italian Supreme Court overturned the conviction and freed the perpetrator, issuing a statement saying that because the victim had been wearing very tight jeans, she must have helped the perpetrator to remove them, thus making the sex consensual. This became known throughout Italy as the “jeans alibi”.

Enraged by this verdict, the women in the Italian Parliament all wore jeans on the steps of the Supreme Court in protest. Media stories about this protest prompted California Senate and Assembly members to do the same on the steps of the Capitol in Sacramento. Seen by Patti Occhiuzzo Giggans, executive director of Peace Over Violence, this California protest was the catalyst for the first Denim Day in Los Angeles in 1999, and it has continued annually since.

As the longest running sexual violence prevention and awareness campaign in history, Denim Day organizers ask community members, elected officials, businesses, and students to make their own social statement by wearing jeans on this day.

By all means, wear denim on April 29 — but more importantly, please share the resources, hotline numbers, and other contacts listed above with anyone and everyone you know who may be at greater risk during this time of isolation.

And if you would like to support Women of Worth’s efforts to protect these vulnerable women, consider donating to WOW at P.O. Box 213, Cedar Ridge, CA 95924, or directly at http://www.womenofworth.org.

Terry McLaughlin, who lives in Grass Valley, writes a twice monthly column for The Union. Write to her at terrymclaughlin2016@gmail.com.

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