(Trigger Warning: This post discusses sexual assault)
When preparing to come to the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), I thought I knew what I’d hear about. I’m currently a public health student in the area of maternal and child health so I spend my days considering social determinants of health such as poverty, access to food and healthcare, educational attainment, local laws pertaining to women and their enforcement (or lack thereof), gender-based violence such as sexual assault and domestic violence, and the unique health disparities of women in conflict zones.
In all of these areas, and more, women and girls face inequalities when it comes to health. They do not have the rights or access to make decisions about their own bodies in many cultures. They are disproportionately affected by hunger and poverty. In some places they still cannot own land or make financial decisions. In far more places than I care to think about, women and girls are used in war situations as objects for gaining power.
I knew I would hear reiterations of the same ideas while at CSW. What I did not realize was how focused this year’s events would be on the violence and sexual assault that women and girls face all over the world on a daily basis.
In my other life at home, I do a lot of work in my community with sexuality education and sexual reproductive health. That has taken different forms over the past decade, but right now it’s predominantly concerned with the epidemic rates of both chlamydia and gonorrhea in Douglas County, Nebraska, where I currently live. Along with many other community partners, our primary focus is within the incarcerated population because they experience many forms of health disparities before, during, and after incarceration.
That means that I spend my time in and out of the youth correctional facility (ages 8-18) and the adult jail (age 18+) doing age-appropriate, evidence-based, medically-accurate presentations about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), sexual assault and consent, and STD transmission and prevention methods.
We already have conversations with the youth detainees about consent, but as I was very poignantly reminded at CSW that 1 in 4 women will be sexually assaulted by the age 18 and 1 in 3 in her lifetime. This is not including the 1 in 6 males (or likely more due to underreporting) who experience sexual violence before the age of 18 in the United States.
The conversations I’m having are clearly not enough.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I definitely do no think that all persons detained are rapists or have sexually assaulted someone. Similarly, I know for a fact that every person who has sexually assaulted a person is not detained.
But I do know that I can do something to further the conversation surrounding consent. Even if within my own tiny sphere. I don’t know explicitly how to alter the curriculum we are using, but I now head back to the literature to figure out what has worked in other communities. And I will also expand these conversations to the adult inmate population–we know that we are never too old to learn something new.
While the work that I do is not directly linked to a church or congregation, it is linked to my faith and concern for justice. That does not mean that the Church cannot be a leader in impacting the problem. In fact, I wish there were more congregations that were explicitly addressing these concerns. There are greater conversations about what is “good” touch and what is “bad” touch, good/bad relationships, partner negotiation, and what qualifies as consent (and also what doesn’t qualify as consent) that the people in your pews are aching to hear…they just may not express it for fear of the silence, stigma, and shame surrounding the topic.
I challenge you now, Church, to be the voice for good. Preach and teach on those texts in the Bible dealing with violence (yes, they are in there). Discuss those feelings, insecurities, and fears…be sure to get at the root causes. But most of all, I challenge you to be a safe space and provide healing for those who are victims of violence of any kind.
Let’s break the silence, dismantle the stigma, and erase the shame.
Jenny Sharrick, Omaha, Nebraska