Dozens of local leaders on Wednesday took a pledge to believe the stories of survivors of sexual assault.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month — a time across the nation when individuals and organizations, ones like Vincennes’ own Hope’s Voice, focus special attention on educating the public on such crimes.
Nearly half-a-million Americans each year are the victims of sexual assault, and the attacker is nearly always someone known by the victim.
Hope’s Voice Outreach and Volunteer Coordinator Cathy Bush says believing survivors is an important first step in diminishing this violent crime.
“We’re starting the change by asking people to begin by believing survivors,” Bush said of the Start by Believing Campaign — an international movement that simply asks leaders, social service agencies, law enforcement and community members to both inwardly and outwardly vow to believe victims.
Vincennes Police Department Chief Robert Dunham says it’s a pledge he is proud to support.
“Law enforcement officers especially have to lead the way. We have to lead the way in investigations in crimes like this, and so we have to take that pledge and really absorb the information being presented,” said Dunham.
But, the chief says, taking the pledge to believe a survivor’s story doesn’t mean officers will neglect their duties to fully investigate.
“We don’t jump to conclusions or show any kind of prejudice against anyone involved in a case, and as law enforcement if we can do that it helps other victims and witnesses come forward,” Dunham said.
The staff at Hope’s Voice want local residents, too, to pledge to be part of changing the culture of sexual violence that plagues the nation.
It’s estimated that 1 in 5 women and 1 in 38 men will be sexually assaulted during their lifetime — with the majority of those instances occurring before age 24.
The highest targeted demographic for sexual violence is teenage and young adult women, making outreach programs on campuses like Vincennes University incredibly important, says Kathy Evans.
“Sexual assault is something every college campus has some issues with, so it’s very important to address. We want to develop a culture that says this kind of behavior is absolutely unacceptable,” she said.
Evans, a licensed clinic social worker and counselor at VU, has been working alongside others at the campus to develop a number of programs this month to arm students with the tools they need to combat sexual assault.
The counseling office is encouraging students, faculty and staff to take the pledge, and they even ordered hundreds of ‘Start by Believing’ face masks to hand out to students as one way to draw attention to the campaign.
The campus library, too, has a special display of materials connected to sexual assault, as well as looping videos and informational pamphlets should students need to connect to resources if they or a friend find themselves a victim of an assault.
Tuesday, Evans says Student Activities is sponsoring a program called Sex Signals, a bystander intervention program.
“Bystander intervention has been proven to be one the most effective ways to prevent sexual assault,” said Evans. “So it encourages people to intervene when they see somebody at risk or in trouble — like if someone is at a party and is intoxicated and being targeted or taken advantage of.”
The program is offered free to all students, said Evans, noting that the university has a duty to set the right example for students.
“All of our programming is to cultivate the right environment and let our students know what we expect,” she said.
The VU campus, along with Hope’s Voice and other community organizations, will also observe Denim Day on April 28 — a day when people across the world simply wear jeans to show support for survivors of sexual assault.
Both Evans and Bush say the change needed begins with listening to and believing survivors.
“We’re just trying to do what we can to educate and take a stand against sexual violence,” said Evans. “It starts with believing and listening.”