I was privileged to spend some time with some gorgeous girls in Samoa last year. As my blog posting has been sporadic-at-best as of late, this has sat in my 'drafts' way too long!
In 2013 I was planning a family holiday to Samoa. As someone passionate about social justice, I like to ‘give back’ to the communities I live in and visit. I had helped organised an aid package to go to Samoa Victim Support Group previously, and I thought I may be able to offer a workshop to the girls at their residential shelter. Wellington-based charity SpinningTop connected me to their President Lina and we organised for me to provide a workshop for them.
What I Did
When we arrived in Apia I met with Lina at the SVSG offices and she gave me more background on their organisation. We discussed what I would be teaching the girls and I gave Lina a couple of boxes of supplies I had brought with me – Air NZ had kindly agreed to transport these for free. The boxes contained some donated stationery items, disposable sanitary pads donated by Kotex, as well as re-usable packs from Days For Girls NZ (containing underwear, cloth pads, and a wash cloth).
I spent a morning with approximately 30 girls - the girls were fantastic and really engaged, and the staff were very supportive. The girls were gorgeous, so full of smiles and laughter. They are survivors for whom I have the utmost of respect for. Lina had told me some of their stories, and these girls have all been on traumatic and heartbreaking journeys. Most of them are with SVSG because they are survivors of sexual violence, for many of them this is incest. Many of them have been pregnant as a result of this violence. Tragically in many cases these girls have been disowned and blamed for bringing shame on the family. SVSG provides safety, education and a home for these girls. SVSG also manages the legal process to bring justice for these children.
The girls had lots of questions and I felt like we could have spent a lot more time together. The level of knowledge and understanding of how their bodies work was very low. Most knew very little about the menstrual cycle, pregnancy and childbirth - despite there being pregnant girls and girls who had already birthed in the group. My (then 10 month old) daughter Nina accompanied me and I found that having her there was a good ‘icebreaker’ with the girls. The girls enjoyed chatting and playing with Nina as they warmed up to me. As it turned out Nina ended up sleeping in my front-pack for most of the morning as I taught - it was more than 30 degrees in the classroom so we were rather sweaty by the end of it!
I was a little taken aback when TV cameras arrived just as we were starting. They filmed the introductory part of my session and then in the middle of the session I was called out for an interview. I was a little anxious about this as had had no warning and I wasn't sure what angle they were going to take, but I kept it very neutral and emphasised the importance of all people having a good understanding of their bodies and sexuality. It came across well on the news that night.
I left SVSG feeling like what I had done that day with the girls was but a drop in the ocean. I felt like I had empowered the the girls with knowledge of their bodies, but also knew there was so much information we didn't cover. SVSG were hugely grateful for the workshop, but I wanted to do more. These girls really touched my heart. There is a huge need for ongoing body/sexuality education as well as antenatal education for the pregnant girls. SVSG has been on my mind a lot since.
Earlier this year SpinningTop approached me to see if I would be interested in offering a more comprehensive programme for the girls at SVSG. With SpinningTop's support, I am returning to provide a one-week programme in August 2014. I am currently fundraising for supplies (food, baby formula, educational supplies) for SVSG and am hugely appreciative of any donations. For more details on this project, please click here.
I am sick and tired of victim blaming. I am sick and tired of seeing directives for women on how to "keep safe". I am sick and tired of seeing resources put into "keeping women safe" while the equivalent amount of energy is not directed towards educating their would-be attackers on not attacking.
Earlier this week I was dismayed to see my own town was jumping on the bandwagon when I read the headline "City angel' to keep eye on women". It caught my attention because it sounded a bit creepy. Women need to have an eye kept on them? (I guess we do if you subscribe to the patriarchal notion that we probably shouldn't be out and about by ourselves anyway because we will probably use our evil forces to tempt men to attack us. But I digress.)
The article states that "Young women out on the town in Palmerston North now have their very own "angel" to look out for them....in the hope of reducing harm and victimisation of young women as a result of excess alcohol consumption."
NO! Stop right there.
Victimisation is NEVER the RESULT of excess alcohol consumption! The only reason a young woman is victimised is because SOMEONE ELSE assaulted/raped her. End of story.
Being generous, I tried to interpret the initial sentence as meaning that the 'Angel' would help protect the women from other people (presumably men) who had consumed too much alcohol. But no, it wasn't anything to do with the men - the 'Angel' "would work with young women in particular to make them aware of the harm intoxication can bring, as well as how to stay safe in the city."
I absolutely agree that alcohol can cause harm to oneself. Heck, I have been there. But we need to be clear that alcohol never ever ever causes a woman to be victimised.
The council is putting money into making women change their behaviour, but ignoring the fact that the problem is actually the rapists. In doing this they are putting the blame squarely on the females. Furthermore, the big issue with this sort of "crime prevention" is that any behaviour change of potential victims simply displaces the crime. As a friend of mine commented, this approach simply says "Don't get drunk girls, stay sober and make sure another girl is victimised instead."
I am just so weary of the same-old same-old "watch out women you need to be more careful" line, when our leaders could equally be saying to men: "Hey, the vast majority of rapists are men - are you sure you are safe enough for us to let you out on the streets?".
I think the concept is excellent - someone helping out young people in town. Someone educating young people on the harm alcohol does. But to gender it, to solely focus on females, doesn't solve the bigger problem. The problem is that we have a rape culture that enables men to justify their actions and leaves women scared to walk through the Square at night. The follow-on effect this has is that victims are made to feel they didn't do enough to stop their attacker and the attackers can lean on our rape culture and point out all the things his victim did "wrong".
(To learn more about rape culture I highly recommend you visit this site)
I would feel far more at ease with this initiative if the same amount of energy was given to having consent conversations and education with the males in town. If this is happening already and I am unaware of it, then FABULOUS and I will eat my words and issue a hearty apology (whilst also pointing out that that story obviously wasn't worth newspaper headlines).
Come on Palmerston North City Council, where is the money and resources for consent education for males out on the town? Why must it start with changing the women? Why is it always about us, and our behaviour?
Rachel is a writer and educator whose fields of interest include sexuality education, gender, feminism and youth development.