May is Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month in Ontario. Each year, survivors and advocates raise their voices especially loudly to call for an end to sexualized violence and harassment as well as for increased, sustained funding for support, counselling and healing services.

It’s also the month that many sexual assault centres count on for key fundraising activities.

In the context of the current pandemic, though, it is hard to imagine how either voices or money will be raised, given the physical distancing requirements under which we are all living.

It’s also hard to imagine how sexual assault and rape crisis centres are managing to provide their much-needed services to survivors without being able to see them in person.

Fortunately, those of us working in the violence against women field have long understood the need to be innovative. Whether raising awareness or money or providing services to survivors of sexual violence, rape crisis and sexual assault centres are being creative.

The Color Purple

While wearing purple for a day does not end gender-based violence, it can send a powerful message. Staff and volunteers at VAW organizations and other workplaces (including The Canadian Shield, a manufacturer of PPE) wore purple to work on May 1st to show solidarity with survivors of sexualized violence.

I delivered a training — online — at one such organization on May 1st, and the 30 or so participants were decked out in a variety of purple togs, from shirts to scarves to boas to, in my case, a purple baseball cap with the letters FTP emblazoned across the front.

(The cap is the creation of the Women’s Sexual Assault Centre of Renfrew County, which I embellished with ribbons and paper flowers to give it some spring colour. If I tell you that the TP stand for The Patriarchy, I imagine you can figure out what the F stands for.)

The message of this year’s campaign is:

“It doesn’t matter what you wore, what you were doing when it happened, how you know them or if you said yes another time; it was not your fault. You are not to blame. You did not ask for this.”

I would make just one addition: It doesn’t matter what you did after it happened: whether or not you called the police, whether or not you sought medical assistance or had a rape kit done; whether or not you told anyone. It definitely doesn’t matter if you continued to have a relationship with the person who sexually assaulted you. It was not your fault. You are not to blame. You did not ask for this.

“It’s time to rally”

With no gala wine and cheese parties, golf tournaments, 5 km. runs or auctions this year, sexual assault centres are going to be hurting. Operating on shoestring budgets to begin with, centres had hoped that $1 million in one-time funding provided in 2019 to assist centres reduce the size of their waiting lists would be renewed, increased and annualized in 2020. In March, the government announced that funding would not be renewed; instead, it would be allocating $2 million, with a focus on human trafficking, some of which would flow to sexual assault centres doing this work.

As the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres noted:

“In a social climate where awareness of the prevalence and impacts of sexual violence continue to increase, as do demands for sexual violence support services, we would hope that service investments would address the needs of all survivors of sexual violence.”

The Sexual Assault Support Centre of Waterloo Region is not letting a mere pandemic stand in its way of raising the money it needs to serve its clients. With its RallyWithRosie campaign, aided by an anonymous supporter who is matching all donations, it hopes to raise $20,000 to support its work.

Thinking ahead

In 2016, with not an inkling of the current pandemic, the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres decided it wanted to make its services more accessible, especially for women in rural parts of the province, where it’s not always easy to get to a sexual assault centre for in-person services. Technology, the members decided, was the way to go.

After a consultation process to determine both the needs and wishes of the centres and their clients and their existing technological capacity (equipment and staff skills and comfort levels), the consultant—herself a former sexual assault centre Executive Director – explored various technological tools, looking at their ease of use and accessibility but also, and importantly, the security and privacy features they offered. Once the most appropriate tools were decided on, a toolkit was prepared, technology was purchased/installed and 340 centre staff were trained.

For the past two years, centres have been delivering some services via text, chat and videoconferencing, while also continuing to offer a full range of in-person services and supports. This positioned them and their clients well to be able to adapt to the new normal of all-tech, all-the-time that many others have had to learn from scratch.

As Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month unrolls virtually across Ontario, we should all find ways to support the amazing work being done by the province’s community-based sexual assault centres. Write a letter urging your MPP to support increased funding for these organizations; make a donation to the centre in your community; offer volunteer assistance. As RallyforRosie says:

“Friends, we need your support.”

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