Local rally aims to raise awareness, bring change

ST. ALBANS — How do you change a culture? More specifically, how do you change a culture that supports and perpetuates sexual and domestic violence? Those are the questions speakers at Wednesday’s Rally for Justice in Franklin County asked the community to consider.

Kris Lukens, executive director of Voices Against Violence, kicked off the event held in Taylor Park asking, “What can we do to change the culture that allows sexual abuse and exploitation right here in our community?”

The purpose of the rally was two-fold as it was also held to honor victims and survivors of sexual violence.

“A couple of weeks ago I think we were all dropped a pretty heavy lead balloon,” said community leader Denise Smith, of St. Albans, in the only reference to Sen. Norm McAllister, R-Franklin, who has been charged with the sexual assault of two women who worked for him and an effort to extort sex from a third in exchange for her son’s rent.

“Today is really about courage, about people who have courage,” said Smith, referring to victims who come forward to report their abuse or speak about their experiences.

One of the those victims, a 16-year-old from St. Albans, allowed her anonymous story to be read to the crowd of about 30 people by Chara Vincelette, a staffperson with Voices.

The story began with a walk and an innocent kiss. The victim then described being pulled to the ground and having her clothes removed against her will. “I kept saying, ‘no, please stop,'” she wrote.

After raping her, the perpetrator told her to get dressed, and that if she told anyone he would find her and kill her.

“I felt used and ashamed and like a piece of trash,” the victim wrote.

“When I see him, it’s like I freeze inside,” she wrote. Describing the anger that sometimes causes her to lash out at other people or the times when she’ll simply lapse into silence, she added, “It’s so strange how one night can stay with someone forever.”

Following Vincelette to the podium, was former governor Madeleine Kunin who said, “We can no longer be quiet. We can no longer whisper about secret, quiet stories that happen daily.”

As a legislator and governor, Kunin was involved in efforts to change Vermont’s laws regarding sexual and domestic violence, including making spousal rape a crime and the creation of domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centers.

“We did make progress,” she said, adding that preventing sexual and domestic violence requires cultural change. “That’s much harder to change than laws.”

Kunin spoke of the definition of masculinity in our culture and its connection to power over women. “To be macho … you have to control the women in your life,” she said. “We have to make a broader definition of what is masculine.”

“We have to digger deeper than laws,” said Kunin. “We have to have a society that respects men and women as equals.”

But Kunin also acknowledged that not all women are able to talk about the violence they experience. “Those of us who are here today are really the privileged ones, because it is safe for us to speak out,” she said.

Several speakers addressed the connection between sexual violence and poverty. While sexual assault happens to women – and to a lesser extent men — of all socio-economic backgrounds, research has shown that women of color, women living in poverty, trans-women and women with disabilities are more likely to be victims.

“Sexual offenders play upon the vulnerable, and poverty creates vulnerability,” said Auburn Watersong of the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.

“Many women every day face challenges and choices that are literally between life and death,” said Watersong. Poverty, she noted, creates conditions for sexual exploitation.

In Franklin County a person working full time would need to earn $25 per hour to afford a modest, two-bedroom apartment, she explained.

For victims of domestic violence, the most common reason for not leaving is economic conditions, said Watersong, noting that abusers often control the finances and limit women’s access to funds, as well as cutting off ties to friends or family who could provide assistance.

“When we leave (poor women) behind in the discussion about equal rights for women, we’re also leaving behind their children and their daughters,” said Smith.

The rally is intended to be the first event in a series of public discussions about how to change the community to prevent violence and better support victims. Smith presented the crowd with a pledge they could sign to get involved in that effort. The pledge will ultimately be published with the names of the signatories attached.

Discussion of these issues is not easy, acknowledged Vincelette, adding, “Because it’s difficult, that’s why we need to come together.”

Vincelette also spoke of the need to change a culture that both shames and blames victims of sexual violence. “Victim blaming is the culture in which we ask the wrong questions,” she said, referring to questions commonly asked about victims such as ‘why was she wearing that?’ and ‘why was she alone with him?’ or in the case of domestic violence victims ‘why doesn’t she leave?’

The questions rarely focus on the perpetrators and the reasons for their actions, focusing instead on the victims.

“How do we send the message it is never OK to take power and control away from another human being?” Vincelette asked.

“These are tough conversations, not easy to have,” said St. Albans City Mayor Liz Gamache.

As a country, “we aspire to achieve liberty and justice for all … but the reality is it doesn’t exist for all,” she said.

The community, she said, has an opportunity to better support victims of injustice. She asked those in attendance to “think about what next step you can take to support victims and create a better community.”

Retired Vermont Judge Ben Joseph did have a suggestion for the crowd – contact Gov. Peter Shumlin’s office and ask him to fill five empty judgeships.

Because of a lack of judges, the backlog for abuse prevention orders to protect children in Franklin County is “staggering,” said Joseph, surpassing the cases awaiting completion in the much more populous Chittenden County.

Delays in hearings for abuse prevention orders are happening throughout rural Vermont, he explained, adding that the administration is trying to pressure the Vermont Supreme Court into closing rural courthouses.

Despite five vacancies and two more judges set to step down this summer, Shumlin has begun the process of replacing just three, said Joseph.

“Timely access to justice is a basic right. We should provide that right to all citizens, especially victims of violence,” said Joseph.

The local bar association has requested another judge and two more clerks for Franklin County, said Joseph.

Absent more resources for the family and criminal courts, “We’re going to be in a constant state of crisis,” said Joseph.