Coming on the heels of a vigil and walk hosted in Williams Lake on Friday to honour women affected by violence, is a two day conference next month, Breaking the Silence, to support survivors of sexual assault and harassment and to bring education and awareness to a topic that so often goes unreported.
“Our goal is for individuals to share their stories and then have some input from speakers who are experts in the field of sexual violence,” said Eva Navrot, project coordinator at the Williams Lake Women’s Contact Society. “On Saturday, we come up with an action plan for our community.”
And it’s because of countless stories of abuse from people within the community that the need for this project was realized. Bel Hume told the Tribune that after talking with members of her family and realizing that three people in her family had been molested she felt she needed to do something to stop it and “to help other women and other boys and girls survive this and have the healing and actually have some resources.”
Hume said she started talking with people in the community who worked in mental health about her desire to make a change and stop sexual violence and they said “yeah, let’s do it.”
The conference will take place amidst an internet firestorm of #metoo posts on social media where women use the hashtag to come forward and share their stories in hopes of bringing to light the magnitude of sexual violence, harassment and abuse. The “Me Too” campaign was created by activist Tarana Burke ten years ago and was recently turned into an hashtag by actress Alyssa Milano.
“I posted umpteen times that I was either assaulted or harassed and probably every woman has the same story and lots of men too,” said Joan Sorley about the campaign. “It doesn’t stop and that’s why I felt I had to come forward with my story, because I can. A lot of survivors can’t.”
A panel of six speakers, including Sorley will speak on Friday, Nov. 4 from 6 to 8 p.m. about why it’s important to break the silence, what happened to them when they did share their stories and what to expect afterwards. It’s an important step to breaking the stigma around sexual violence, Sorley said.
That stigma exists for men as well as women, adds Joan Gentles, another notable speaker on the panel.
“We started off just women coming to the meeting and we decided that we needed to include men because the same thing is happening to men as well,” she said.
Dave Belleau was the only man in attendance at the planning meeting last Monday and told the Tribune, “the men where I come from and my age silently kept this secret for over 63 years.” Belleau attends the Committee for Action Against Sexual Violence regularly and agreed to tell his story as a speaker on the conference panel.
“Unfortunately it happens. That’s why I’m here. Because somebody needs to say something.”
Standing up and saying something can be difficult however, and the organizers of the conference recognize this. While Friday’s section of the conference encourages sharing between community members, Saturday morning will see talks by two experts in the subject of sexual violence. There will also be a counsellor on site to help attendees with any overwhelming emotions they may be feeling.
Tracey Porteous is the executive director of the Ending Violence Association of British Columbia, an organization dedicated to providing support to anti-violence programs across the province and will speak on Nov 4. Her session will be followed by a talk by Dr. Jacqueline Holler, an associate professor in the Department of History, Women’s Studies and Gender Studies at the University of Northern British Columbia.
One of the most important parts of the Breaking the Silence conference will be Saturday afternoon where attendees will come up with an action plan for the community of Williams Lake to address sexual violence.
“I’m hoping this is a stepping stone for other communities to say, ‘They did that in Williams Lake, I think we can do that in our community’,” said Hume about the afternoon strategy session. Helping to come up with a ‘what’s next’ plan won’t just protect and help current survivors but may even help prevent future assaults, she said.
“We’re not just taking back our power, but damn it, we’re going to figure out how to get this prevented so that our kids and grandkids are safe,” said Sorley.
The conference will take place at Thompson Rivers University on November 3-4. Those interested can register through the Women’s Contact Society.