Why is April Sexual Assault Awareness Month?

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Martina Todaro, MA, Research Associate

As a non-profit that supports community-based solutions to complex public health challenges through research and evaluation, ICH partners with local organizations on a variety of relevant projects. While some are in the traditional realm of public health, others were not until recently. Homelessness and housing issues are examples of areas that were outside the sphere of this science before their intersection with health was widely understood. Most recently, sexual violence has also appeared on the list of public health issues, and for tragic reasons.

Data published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2012 tells us that 1 in 5 adult women are raped at some point in their lives. 37.4% of them are first raped by the age of 24[1] . Let’s not be misguided by what we’ve become conditioned to believe sexual violence means (for example, a stranger jumping out of a bush in the middle of the night). Between 1995-2013, according to the US Department of Justice, 80% of female survivors knew their perpetrator[2]. While women are disproportionately victimized if compared to men, individuals with physical or intellectual[3]disabilities, regardless of their sex or gender identity, represent a disturbing 11.5% of victims of sexual violence.

In recent years, sexual violence prevention efforts have focused on engaging the public by raising awareness about the magnitude of the problem, and empowering individuals to be active bystanders. The Obama’s administration sent a clear message in this regard with the It’s on Us campaign. On a smaller scale, we can find programs that aim to change the conversation about sexual violence nationwide. Locally, for example, the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center provides training on active bystanding on college campuses, in efforts to advocate for social responsibility. Similarly, Jane Doe Inc., among other initiatives, engages men and fathers to promote positive masculinity and prevent teenage boys’ perpetration of a first sexual assault.

ICH recently worked with Triangle Inc, a local non-profit that empowers youth and adults with disabilities to enjoy independent, fulfilling lives in the community. Through the evaluation of their IMPACT:Ability program, a training on safety and self-advocacy for special education students in the Boston Public School system, ICH found increases in participants’ safety and self-advocacy knowledge, their confidence to defend themselves, their beliefs in their personal abilities, their sense of safety, and their likelihood to speak up to stop potentially abusive situations. Many of these changes were shown to be sustained even one year after the students first participated in the training, when ICH administered a follow-up survey.

We hope that this study paves the road for other efforts to identify effective, long-lasting interventions enabling individuals, especially the most vulnerable ones, to recognize and get out of unsafe situations. Surprisingly, there is not a comprehensive body of literature on the intersectionality of abuse, including the ones of a sexual nature, level of ability, gender, and other factors such as race, class, and immigration status. Our hope is that, by acknowledging their interconnected nature, we can help ourselves become a more civically engaged, supportive community ready to step out of our comfort zone to make everyone feel safe.

If you want to know more about ICH’s IMPACT:Ability study check out: Dryden EM, Desmarais J, Arsenault L. Effectiveness of IMPACT:Ability to improve safety and self-advocacy skills in students with disabilities—follow-up study. J Sch Health. 2017; 87: 83-89.

[1] https://www.cdc.gov/ViolencePrevention/pdf/SV-DataSheet-a.pdf
[2] https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/rsavcaf9513.pdf
[3] https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/disabilityandhealth/healthyliving.html