“IT’S a fundamental human right to feel safe – people should be able to walk where they want,” says Chrystina Stanford.
While it may seem a simple message, Chrystina believes it can often be one of the most difficult to get across to the community – particularly where sexual assault is concerned.
Chrystina, an executive officer at the Canberra Rape Crisis Centre, says sexual assault is one of the most “hidden” crimes.
“Sexual assault carries a lot of shame, so it can be difficult to talk about it,” she says.
“Sometimes we don’t get people coming to us until 30 years after they have been sexually assaulted for that reason. Often, people are afraid of being blamed themselves.”
This month, women around Canberra will march through Garema Place and the Civic centre to raise awareness of sexual violence and the “right to feel safe in public places” at “Reclaim the Night” – an annual global event in its 34th year in Canberra.
“Reclaim the Night” began around 40 years ago, at the time of the “Yorkshire Ripper” murders in England, where women were told by police to stay indoors at night.
Chrystina, who is helping to organise the march, which is run by the ACT Women’s Centre for Health Matters and the ACT Women’s Services Network, says the event provides a public platform for women – and the men who support them – to take a stand against sexual violence.
“I think the reason why it’s so important for us to continue to hold this event each year is… for people to know that sexual assault is a prevalent issue in our community,” she says.
“It affects one in three girls before the age of 18 and one in six women will be assaulted in a lifetime. It’s really important that we find a way to help the community talk about it.”
The evening will include speakers, a musical performance and a barbecue.
“The mood at these events is quite an empowered one,” she says.
“It’s a collective group of people marching for a common cause, so it usually ends up at Garema Place and a light mood attached to it – it’s quite a powerful space to be in.”
The tragic death of Melbourne woman Jill Meagher, who was raped and murdered while walking home from a night out last month, has given the march new significance, Chrystina says.
Sexual assault is the most underreported crime in the community, says Chrystina, with between 10 and 20 per cent of assaults reported.
“Thankfully, we’ve seen rates of reporting sexual assaults have gone up because police are much better at responding these days, so people feel more confident to go to them and report what’s happened which is a great thing,” she says.
The ACT has seen a rise of sexual assaults, with 223 cases reported in 2011; up 35 from the year before, with 199, or 89 per cent, of the victims being female.
Changing attitudes and behaviours within the community about sexual assault is an important step, says Chrystina.
“Sexual assault can come with such judgement in terms of its response; it’s not like any other crime,” she says.
“The community has a really important role, if there wasn’t things said like ‘well, you’d been out drinking,’ or ‘look at what you were wearing’, I think the recovery from sexual assault would be better.”
Reclaim the Night, Garema Place, Civic, 6.30pm, October 26. The march will take place around Garema Place and the Civic centre. If you need help, or know someone who does, call the Canberra Rape Crisis Centre, on 6247 2525.