Combating Alaska's epidemic of sexual violence is challenging, but we're in it together

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. It gives us all the opportunity to show our support to survivors of sexual violence, and become part of the broader change we know needs to happen to reduce the epidemic of sexual assault and abuse in our state.

I spend much of my time speaking with Alaskans and know the depths of the struggles we face in our communities with sexual violence. I have visited many of our state's victims' shelters and met with Sexual Assault Response Teams. Sexual violence affects all of us, not just the victim. It impacts all gender, sexual orientation, age, religious, socio-economic and ethnic classifications. We hear over and over the statistics in Alaska but the bottom line is that far too many men, women and children continue to experience the trauma of sexual violence. It is a major public health issue as well as a violation of human rights and social justice.

When someone experiences sexual assault, abuse or violence it can have long-term ramifications such as chronic pain, mental health problems, sexually transmitted diseases, depression, suicidal thoughts and fear of trusting others.

Ending sexual violence and ensuring basic safety for all Alaskans is a priority and we must face this epidemic with our eyes wide open. We must work systematically and cooperatively to see reductions in violence. We must implore all Alaskans to join in this battle as we are all responsible for using our voices and actively engaging to shape our communities and protect our citizens.

This is not work for the impatient. Ending violence, keeping families safe, is always our goal, and we want it to happen now. Fortunately, statewide efforts have shown a decrease in the number of Alaskan women that identify as having experienced sexual violence in their lifetime. We are moving the dial in a positive direction but the task is immense.

We must continue to support victims and work to encourage all survivors to come forward and report so that we can hold offenders accountable and seek justice for victims. The encouraging news is that in most communities I am learning that more and more victims are speaking out about things that were once hush-hush. Due to funding constraints, Choose Respect rallies and similar initiatives have become grassroots efforts. Community ownership of the necessity to build awareness is proving effective. I am finding that even teenagers are advocating for healthy, respectful relationships with boundaries and zero tolerance for abuse and violence as they seek to improve the safety in their cities, villages and families.

Governor Walker and I attended the powerful production of "Our Voices Will Be Heard" where one young Alaskan victim became empowered to break free of generational sexual abuse. This is the semi-autobiographical story of playwright, Vera Starbard who with great courage is shattering the silence and demanding "no more."

April is also National Child Abuse Prevention Month. Through April 24, UAA is presenting the West Coast premiere of "Stalking the Bogeyman," which chronicles David Holthouse's true story of childhood sexual abuse and violence as a Chugiak youth. These productions present raw, frank discussions of rape and violence. Discussions that must continue to be had to raise awareness that spurs us on to deliberate action to reverse our shameful statistics.

This month is an opportunity for all Alaskans to raise their voices, to join in the fight to end sexual violence. It is uncomfortable work. It is painful work. Our families are worth it, and I am honored to stand alongside the many Alaskans who believe that prevention is possible and are doing something about it.

For confidential support and information the statewide crisis line can be contacted anonymously 24/7 at 1-800-478-8999. For information on volunteer opportunities and community and statewide programs, go to http://dps.alaska.gov/cdvsa/.

Donna Walker is an attorney, former caseworker for the Office of Children's Services, honorary chair of the Alaska Children's Trust, a mother, grandmother and is married to Gov. Bill Walker.

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