Standing up for Change

April 05, 2013

It is 1990. Hundreds of students are standing on the steps of the Rotunda holding candles, day and night. They take turns through the nights and days with other students, male and female. All of the students are determined to continue the vigil until they reach their goal. Holding candles of hope on the steps of the University structure that is most representative of hope, the students say they will not leave until the vigil has gone on for 134 hours. Why 134 hours? That was the number of sexual assaults that had been reported through all local offices and agencies, both at the University and in the community, in 1990.

The students also have a demand: create a sexual assault prevention and education office for the University, and hire a full-time coordinator to lead change at the University. Faculty and students wanted that office and coordinator at the Women's Center, where it resides today.

Created and designed by Claire Kaplan in 1991 to combat sexual violence and abuse through advocacy, training and leadership, Sexual and Domestic Violence Services (SDVS) at the Women's Center is a key resource and support for both male and female students. Increasingly, faculty and staff too have sought out SDVS for active engagement. Many have opted to take part in the Survivor Support Training program in order to better understand and help those survivors who come to them for advice at perhaps the most vulnerable time in their lives.

Prevention of sexual assault and intimate partner violence, and support for survivors, are at the heart of SDVS. But no one program, office, or person can do this alone: that is why partnerships with others who are combating violence are so highly valued within SDVS. These key partnerships are both within the University—for instance, with the Office of the Dean of Students, Student Health, the Forensic Nursing Team, and the University Police—and within the community, for example with the Sexual Assault Resource Agency (SARA), the Shelter for Help and Emergency (SHE), and the community Victim-Witness Assistance Program.

The services and leadership training provided through SDVS include advocacy, information and referral for survivors; seminars; for-credit courses; self-defense short courses as well as full RAD training; peer mentorship; training in effective support of survivors; and direct accompaniment of students seeking aid inside and outside of the University.

Students who partner with SDVS—whether Women’s Center interns or peer educators --are also a core part of SDVS: they provide some of the best ideas for outreach to their peers. This partnership is in full force to retool and expand programs using best practices and a primary prevention model of social and behavioral change. Claire, our U.Va. and community partners, and student activists anticipate introducing exciting new programs in the fall aimed at engaging the entire U.Va. community.

Claire earned her B.S. from UC Davis, her master's from the University of Southern California, and her Ph.D. from U.Va. She joined the LA Commission on Assaults Against Women as a hotline advocate in 1983, where she played a leadership role for many years. In 1991 she was hired as the first Director of the SVDS program.

With the increased need to provide accurate, concise and effective training to combat sexual violence at U.Va., Claire developed a stream of assistive programs to help victims in many areas that are often overlooked. Inclusiveness has been a hallmark of Claire's work, from her days on the LA Commission on Assaults Against Women, where she trained the first Deaf hotline counselors, to the ground-breaking Handbook For Survivors published by SDVS, which has chapters written by survivors from every background.

Claire has made an impact nationally as well, working hard to have intimate partner violence included in the Clery Act, for instance. By invitation, she spoke in 2012 at the National District Attorneys Annual Conference on Domestic Violence. This spring she was invited to the White House in recognition of Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month, and recently was invited again to launch "No More," a new national campaign on violence against women.

During Take Back The Night Week (April 8th - 11th), SDVS will be joining with the Sexual Assault Leadership Council and the TBTN organizers to host a series of events at the University. TBTN is an annual program at U.Va. that aims at ending silence about sexual violence and aiding in the elimination of sexual violence in our community.

The TBTN marchers demand something so simple and yet so difficult to achieve: safety for women from assault, whoever they are and wherever they go, whether they walk in the day or at night. But TBTN events go beyond this, bringing together survivors of domestic and sexual abuse to discuss its complexities and offer solutions for awareness and change. TBTN events include a panel on How to Date a Survivor, a Sexual Misconduct Board Mock Trial, a Poetry Slam and the "Rally, March and Survivors' Speakout."

Those candles of hope lit in 1990 on the steps of the Rotunda have never gone out. They speak to us, those flames of a passionate desire for change: they ask for our help, for our compassion. They tell us there is so much more for us to do before we have taken back the night.

By Jyle Dupuis

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