Photo by Cade Schmidt

In an act of women’s empowerment, Western students will march through the streets of Bellingham in the dark, making a statement to the community that women should not be afraid.

Western students will march to downtown Bellingham on Thursday, Nov. 17 after a rally on campus as part of the Take Back the Night event. This march is aimed to raise awareness of violence against women in the community. The marchers stand in solidarity to show the community will not tolerate the violence, said Associated Students Women’s Center Coordinator Kimberly Absher. Another goal of the event is to honor the survivors of violence by holding a candlelight vigil on campus after the march, Absher said.

The rally will begin in the Viking Union Multipurpose room at 6:30 p.m. The march will move from campus to downtown, and the vigil will be held in the Performing Arts Center afterward. All female-identified individuals are invited to the march.

Safety is not the responsibility of the individual, but rather the community, Absher said. She said there is a great deal of underreported crime in the community.

“This isn’t simply a women’s problem,” said Jason Fernandez, member of Western Men Against Violence, in an email. “I think the big issue is that as a society we don’t focus on why many women are afraid of being out on their own at night.”

This year a male speaker will be a part of the rally, which is not typical, Absher said. Ben Hatherton-Zemani is the keynote speaker for the event. Absher said the Women’s Center wants to show that violence is not just a women’s issue, but a community issue. Having a male keynote speaker may help to mobilize men to become active in preventing violence, she said. While women participate in the march, men will take part in a workshop, she said. The two groups will reconvene for the candlelight vigil, she said. Participants can gather at the Underground Coffeehouse in the Viking Union building after the vigil, she said. This is a time to hang out, talk and share, she said.

The participants of the event have ranged from 200 to 350 people during the march and rally over the past few years, she said. Although community members are welcome, mostly students participate, she said.

Usually the event is held in April, but the coordinators decided to hold it in the fall to increase participation and because most instances of violence occur that time of year, Absher said.

Q&A with Devlin O’Donnell, Prevention and Wellness Center
The AS Review spoke with Devlin O’Donnell from the Prevention and Wellness Center at Western. She shared some resources available to people who have experienced violence or sexual assault, as well as ways for students to become proactive in preventing violence in the community.

The AS Review: What are some common misconceptions about sexual assault and violence?
Devlin O’Donnell: I’ve heard many misconceptions about sexual assault and violence over the years. Lots of people understand the reality of sexual assault in our community, but some common misconceptions we hear can be:
“Sexual assault is mostly perpetrated by someone the survivor doesn’t know.” While stranger-assaults can and do happen, the majority of sexual assaults that occur are perpetrated by a friend, partner, roommate or family member.
“Survivors are to blame for what they were wearing, if they were drinking, or who they were with.” Many times survivors of sexual assault are made to feel guilty for experiencing violence. The truth is that the only person who can prevent sexual assault completely is the person who is perpetrating the sexual assault. Survivors are never to blame for what has happened to them.
“Only women experience sexual assault, and only men perpetrate.” Anyone can be affected by sexual assault, and it can happen in any relationship, regardless of a person’s age, race, gender or sexual orientation. Being sexually assaulted can be a very traumatic and difficult process to heal from, and everyone deserves equal support regardless of their identity.

Review: What advice would you give to a student who has experienced violence or sexual assault?
O’Donnell: First and foremost, it’s not your fault, and you deserve to have a safe person to talk to who will talk with you about all of your options. I would encourage any survivor to talk with either CASAS or another safe person about getting emotional support, seeking medical care if necessary, and talking through their legal options, should they choose to report.

Review: How can students help friends or family who have experienced violence or sexual assault?
O’Donnell: The three most important things we can do to support survivors is to just be there to  listen, to believe them, and to support them in finding out all their options throughout their healing process. Telling them about CASAS is a great way to connect them to a professional who can talk through all the options with them and provide further emotional support.


Resources for students who have experienced violence or sexual assault:

Crime and Sexual Assault Support Services (CASAS):

Students can access CASAS if they are in need of emotional support, legal or medical advocacy, information about all reporting options, academic support and support groups.

Students may call the helpline number at (360) 650-3700. CASAS can talk through a number of reporting options available to students that include University Police or Bellingham Police Department, the Dean of Students Office, and our Equal Opportunity Office.

Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services of Whatcom County (DVSAS):

This organization is dedicated to helping any survivors or loved ones of survivors of violence throughout the county.
They offer a 24-hour helpline providing support and advocacy at  (360) 715-1563.

Services at both organizations are free and confidential. Information provided by Devlin O’Donnell.