WAUKEGAN – Shoulders hunched, people hurried up the walkway to the Lake County courthouse, eager to seek the warmth waiting behind the automatic glass doors during the unexpected snowfall April 9.
Few of them slowed their pace long enough to acknowledge the 14 silent individuals lining the walkway. Even fewer paused to read the signs these silent protesters held.
“Only seven out of every 1,000 rapes will lead to a felony conviction,” one read.
Another stated, “Ninety-three percent of juvenile survivors of sexual abuse knew the perpetrators (of sexual abuse cases reported to law enforcement).”
“Your voice has power,” read yet another. “Use it to support survivors.”
Other signs displayed equally alarming and disheartening statistics regarding sexual assault and abuse.
The individuals – nearly all women – were part of a silent protest called “Standing Silent Witness,” organized by the Zacharias Sexual Abuse Center (ZCenter). For one hour, the protesters stood in a show of silent solidarity with the survivors of sexual assault and abuse – both those who have come forward with their story and those who continue to suffer in silence.
ZCenter has held silent protests every April for nearly a decade as part of the national Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
“It really comes from really acknowledging that there are so many survivors of sexual violence who are just not able to talk about what happened to them or who have tried to talk about what’s happened to them but have been silenced by someone else,” said Ashley Dawson, ZCenter’s volunteer and outreach coordinator.
Medical advocate Amy Chaness said events such as these are important to raise awareness not only of the prevalence of sexual assault, but also its continued social stigma. Social movements such as “#MeToo” have helped bring it closer to the forefront of social consciousness, she said, but there is still much work to be done.
“I think some women, some people – men too – are more empowered [by #MeToo],” Chaness said. “But I think other people, too, still feel there’s a lot of shame and embarrassment around it as well.”
Jennifer Evans, ZCenter’s senior associate of development and marketing, watched as the group of protesters gathered signs and took positions at the end of the courthouse walkway just before 8:30 a.m. April 9. She held her own sign, preparing to join them. She said that social stigma is part of what pressures survivors into remaining silent after an attack.
“That uncomfortable feeling is a big reason that survivors are very cautious about who they tell and who they confide in,” she said. “One of the national messages for this month is ‘Believe survivors.’ Believe them; validate their experiences. This is not something that you need to keep quiet about or that people have to find their own ways to deal with.”
ZCenter provides resources and support for survivors, including a 24-hour support line, counseling and medical and legal advocacy. Last year, ZCenter provided more than 1,000 survivors with counseling and served nearly 200 in the emergency room in the days immediately after an attack. Lake County hospitals call in these medical advocates any time a patient is being treated for sexual assault. Evans said these advocates are there to provide whatever help the survivor needs – even if it’s simply a hand to hold.
“[Medical advocates provide] whatever that survivor needs to kind of feel like they’re back in control of the situation,” Evans said later in a telephone interview. “The traumatic experience of a sexual assault is that a survivor has lost control of what’s happening to them and what’s happening to their body.”
An elderly woman walked down the walkway from the courthouse huddled in her purple parka and rolling a backpack behind her. She approached the protesters and their signs, but instead of lowering her gaze and walking by, she slowed to a standstill and read each sign individually.
She finally sighed, indicating the staggering numbers represented on the signs.
“It is very sad to see such big numbers,” she said, her whisper amplified in heavy silence surrounding the protesters.
“[ZCenter is] here to help with the healing,” Evans said. “In order to do that, it takes a lot of bravery. It takes that courageous first step to reach out and tell somebody and then get help.”