When Survivors Rights are Under Attack
What do we do?
The Coalition to End Rape Culture (CERC), held a rally on Monday to do something that no other group at UMass Amherst has done before: create a bill outlining the rights that survivors of sexual violence deserve, and demanded that the University support and uphold these rights. At the flagship University of Massachusetts, why haven’t there been updated policies that completely protect the survivors of sexual abuse and rape to the fullest extent? Why has it come down to a group of students to rally and fight for the administration to notice this problem within our community?
When I came to New Student Orientation (NSO) at UMass in June of 2014, I was shocked (and scared) that there was little to no education for the incoming students on sexual abuse and rape, or even simply sex education in general. Yes, there was a group of people who made skits dedicated to discussing consent and bystander intervention, but no real push from the University to outline and thoroughly discuss rape and sexual violence. In our society that is dominated by rape culture, where survivors are scared to report sexual violence to police, and where survivors are blamed for their own assault and their cases mishandled, I believe the students of UMass needed more than a short segment of skits. According to the United States Department of Justice in 2000, more than half (54%) of female rape survivors in the US were younger than 18 when they experienced their first completed rape or attempted rape. How can our University ignore this statistic? Most of incoming freshman are 18 and play into this scary but important statistic. Why isn’t UMass taking advantage of this time to completely cover all aspects of sexual violence, such as consent, date rape, and harassment (to name a few)?
This is where CERC and their #CarryThatWeight rally come in. #CarryThatWeight aims to end sexual violence, domestic violence, and rape culture, and CERC’s goal is to specifically take action on campus at UMass Amherst. The rally, which took place at the Student Union, resulted in a mass of students collectively coming together to speak out about UMass’s lack of support for sexual violence survivors and to demand a change. The #CarryThatWeight organization is inspired by Emma Sulkowicz’s story, a Columbia University student who carried around her mattress with her as long as her assailant continued to attend Columbia. Her visual arts piece, the mattress, symbolizes the weight of sexual violence. At the UMass Amherst rally, mattresses were held and carried from the Student Union to Whitmore, where they were placed in front of the administration building as a symbol to represent the mishandling of sexual assault cases, lack of rights for survivors, and the need for better policy against sexual violence. CERC and students who joined the rally chanted for resource accessibility, better legislation for these survivors, and were able to speak out about personal stories of sexual violence. CERC’s mission for the #CarryThatWeight rally states “Let’s help carry the burden of weight shouldered by survivors of sexual violence together by raising our voices and demanding UMass admin implement a ‘Survivor’s Bill of Rights’ to increase support, resources and services for survivors and to institute comprehensive sexual violence prevention programs and prosecution policies at UMass.” Fortunately, CERC was able to schedule a meeting with administrators after walking into Whitmore with about 15 ralliers, showing how seriously this was to be taken.
The rally served to request that the University adopt CERC’s Survivors Bill of Rights immediately, which is specifically tailored to the UMass Universities. The Survivors Bill of Rights provides survivors with fundamental rights, options, and resources, along with a transparent and accessible reporting process if the survivor chooses to do so. If these rights are violated, the survivor can hold the University accountable. These rights within the bill also include that survivors should be able to retain financial aid and secure housing on campus, and that survivors should be reimbursed full tuition and fees if they must withdraw from the University during the semester. CERC, along with the Survivor Bill of Rights, is demanding more active training for RA’s throughout the school year and for additional dialogue and training for incoming students at New Student Orientation.
We can no longer wait for the University to act. We, as a student body, must demand these rights for survivors by stressing the Survivors Bill of Rights that provides better options and assistance to those struggling through a very difficult, emotional, and dark period in their lives. Our campus is not as safe and secure as it stands today without making these important changes and it is up to the students to make the push towards policy change. It’s time to bring attention to the atrocity of sexual violence and request that the University take action immediately.
Photo Credit- Lauren Pepperman and Kelly Nicolas