Philly’s rape crisis center marks 20th anniversary of Sexual Assault Awareness Month

Panelists at Tuesday's Teal Day Virtual Press Conference marking the 20th anniversary of Sexual Assault Awareness Month hosted by WOAR Philadelphia Center Against Sexual Violence

Panelists at Tuesday's Teal Day Virtual Press Conference marking the 20th anniversary of Sexual Assault Awareness Month hosted by WOAR Philadelphia Center Against Sexual Violence. (Zoom)

To mark the 20th anniversary of the Sexual Assault Awareness Month campaign observed every April and SAAM Day of Action, which takes place the first Tuesday in April, WOAR-Philadelphia Center Against Sexual Violence hosted a Teal Day press conference to discuss how the nonprofit has worked over the past 50 years to eliminate all forms of sexual violence.

All panelists and viewers were asked beforehand to wear teal-colored clothing — the color signifying sexual violence prevention — to show support for survivors of sexual assault and abuse. Leaders in the effort discussed why WOAR’s work is important and how we can continue to promote awareness and end sexual assault and violence once and for all.

Monique Howard, executive director of WOAR, began by inquiring rhetorically what the city would look like if the nonprofit weren’t there, who would do the work, and how it would get done. There has been a decrease in calls to WOAR’s hotline but an uptick in texts sent throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, she said, because victims, “are not in safe spaces to call the hotline and receive the help they need. We need to meet people where they are, where they need us the most.”

Howard said victims services organizations such as Northwest Victim Services and Central Division Crime Victim Services, shelters like Dawn’s Place and Covenant House, drop-in centers such as the Salvation Army, law-enforcement special victims units, and more have played an integral role by partnering with WOAR.

Jovida Hill, executive director of the Mayor’s Office of Engagement for Women and the Philadelphia Commission for Women, said the conversation comes at a time when violence against women is at an all-time high, citing violence against Black trans women, Asian women being disproportionately targeted during the pandemic, and the recent sexual assault of a woman inside a Center City Macy’s restroom. Hill has collaborated with WOAR by serving on the Philadelphia Sexual Assault Advisory Council and its subcommittee, the Sexual Assault Review team.

Mayor Jim Kenney, who has spent much of his time in office pushing for more progressive policies such as signing the Fair Work Week Bill, raising the minimum wage, and revising the city’s sexual harassment policy, said he has declared April 2021 as Sexual Assault Awareness Month in Philadelphia.

“We need to send a clear reminder to survivors that sexual assault is not their fault and it did not happen because of what they were wearing,” said Kenney. “We need to educate our children and young people about consent and respect and to speak out when we see behaviors that are problematic.”

Kenney praised WOAR, the first and only rape crisis center in Philadelphia, for its 50 years of service but noted that it was not just the job of these organizations. “It takes all of us to restore safety to every corner in this great city,” he said.

Some of the recent work WOAR (formerly known as Women Organized Against Rape) has done includes updating its client database with the most accurate data on victims and survivors of sexual assault and initiating a citywide survivor assessment survey, which highlights the needs and challenges of sexual assault survivors and identifies potential obstacles and gaps in response to survivor services in Philadelphia.

In 2019, the nonprofit launched Safer City Philadelphia, as a citywide strategy focused on the intersections of sexual violence. WOAR collaborates with four major industries —  entertainment, hospitality/tourism, transportation, and colleges/universities — to provide specific bystander intervention training. Hill said the initiative aims to systematically decrease incidents of sexual assault to make the city safer.

According to Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw, the pandemic has taken away some of the only safe havens people could rely on, increasing the chances of becoming a victim of domestic violence. In 2020, there was an increase in domestic violence cases across both Philadelphia and the United States. In Philadelphia last year, there were eight cases of domestic violence homicide; this year, there are already 11 reported cases.

Outlaw noted that many cases of domestic violence likely went unreported.

“We forget how these horrifying experiences follow individuals throughout their lives. The trauma and the loss that is felt by those who have survived these awful acts are profound enough to affect families, often lasting intergenerationally,” said Outlaw.

The Asian American community is currently reeling from that trauma, said City Councilmember Helen Gym.

“We are ending the stigma of rape and rape culture — it resonates within our Asian American community, within our broader immigrant community,” said Gym. “There is a lot of pain within the Asian and Pacific Islander community, after the mass murders in Atlanta that we firmly believe are part of rape culture. So many of the incidents around race hate are rooted in gender-based violence.”

Gym said WOAR’s work on voice and visibility is crucial.

“We’re reminding people the actions we take now can be truly transformative, and have an impact on daughters and young people, new allies and advocates around the world,” she said.

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If you or anyone you know is a survivor of sexual assault or violence and in need of immediate assistance, call or text WOAR’s 24-Hour Hotline at 215-985-3333.

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