UP’s first Sexual Assault Awareness Week
A collaboration between UNASA UP and SpeakOut birthed the University of Pretoria’s first Sexual Assault Awareness Week (SAAW) which took place from 15 to 18 April. The initiative, created by UNASA, is inspired by the Sexual Assault Awareness Month campaign in the United States.
The theme for 2019, ‘I Ask’, reiterates the importance of consent. The Humanitarian Officer of UNASA UP, Michelle Smorfitt, said that the initiative is very important to the organisation due to the emphasis it places on humanitarian affairs. SAAW helps fulfil UNASA UP’s mission for this year, which is to deepen its focus on humanitarian drives, furthering the Sustainable Development Goals.
The programme for the week started with a Visibility walk where participants held placards captioned “I ask for consent”. This walk ended with a handprint ceremony at the Merensky wall where participants pledged to believe and support sexual assault survivors. The SpeakOut director, Stephanie Cookson, expressed that the turnout and engagement from students in terms of pledging support was “really exciting and heart-warming”. The week also included a seminar where sexual assault stories were shared as well as an activation at the piazza that gave stakeholders such as CSA&G the opportunity to raise awareness about safety issues. The week ended with free selfdefence workshops.
As stated in the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act 6 of 2012, ‘consent’ means voluntary or unforced agreement. Africa Check revealed that in 2018 in South Africa, 110 rapes were reported to the police daily, and a total of 50 108 sexual offences were recorded for the year, inclusive of rape. These statistics show a low understanding of consent. Cookson says that “consent is a fundamental thing” and that “people do not owe you anything […] people do not owe you their bodies”. Cookson reiterated that consent is not just about physical touch, but could also include sharing photos, for example. Speaking of sexual assault, Smorfitt voiced that “sexual assault is a prominent issue and social taboo on campus and is a clear violation of someone’s human rights”. She consequently expressed that SAAW was a big success. The contribution of volunteers and the organisation and management of the week “achieved [UNASA UP’s] mission through creating awareness, creating exposure for support services and showing support”. Although a success, Smorfitt says there is “space for improvement”. She says that her “hopes for the next SAAW programme is that it is bettered and taken to the next level. That the impact of the programme reaches many more people and begins to #ChangetheCulture at the University of Pretoria and South Africa.”
The goals of SAAW include letting “survivors […] know that there is a huge community of people who are fighting for them and who are here for them”
Although SAAW saw a higher percentage of women present than men, the presence of men is needed so that constructive dialogue can bring about effective change. This statement is reiterated by Cookson who said, “conversation is important and men should be involved in the conversation”. Cookson also mentioned the #ChangeTheCulture initiative and the importance of inclusivity. The #ChangeTheCulture initiative encourages both men and women to pledge a commitment to break down societal constructs that blame and shame victims by not holding perpetrators responsible or institutions accountable. Cookson explains that the reason why a large percentage of men are not part of the conversation is because of the fear to make a commitment to a movement which might result in judgement. Cookson emphasised that the #ChangeTheCulture initiative starts with having open conversations about sexual assault within your personal relationships.
It is important to break the stigma that men cannot be victims of sexual assault as they are, too, a percentage of the victims of sexual assault. At SAAW’s seminar on 17 April, where sexual assault stories were shared, Rees Mann, the founder of the non-profit company South African Male Survivors of Sexual Assault (SAMSOSA) spoke. Mann is a victim of sexual abuse and gang rape and highlighted the importance of “dismantling toxic masculinity and socialistic positioning”. Mann vocalised the unspoken code of “emotional bankruptcy”, where a lot of men put on a mask and pretend to be okay. This, according to Mann, leaves men in a vulnerable position as they struggle to fully express their problems when they have been assaulted. During the seminar Pierre Brouard, a clinical psychologist and the Deputy director of CSA&G, also spoke and shared the importance of information and research. Brouard highlighted the difficult situation the LGBTQ+ community faces in areas where an undesired “sexual orientation is criminalised”.
Cookson says that she believes the teal colour used during SAAW represents not only healing, but also “strength and resilience”. Cookson says that one of the goals for SAAW is for “survivors and the loved ones of survivors, be it gender-based violence, rape, sexual assault […] to know that there is a huge community of people who are fighting for them and who are here for them”. Cookson wishes to express, in the form of advice, that anyone who wants to report being sexually abused or assaulted but is held back by fear, should understand that there is never going to be an easy way to solve this but there is help. Victims are never alone and if they cannot confide in someone close to them, then support structures within the university such as student support services, student counselling and CSA&G do exist.
Photos: Katherine Atkinson