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In your average roomful of 100 Alaska women, well over half of them – 59 – have been physically abused or sexually assaulted in their lifetimes.
When you pass a woman on the sidewalk, in the aisle at the grocery store, on a ski trail or in the car next to you, there’s a better than 50-50 chance she is among the victims.
This epidemic knows no geographical bounds. The rates can’t be attributed to one region, or one town, or to big towns, or to villages.
For many, this statistic isn’t just sad -- it’s a little hard to accept. It just doesn’t seem possible. But for the social workers, legal advocates, prosecutors and investigators who work in the field, it’s completely believable.
“I guess one thing I’m struck by is there’s sort of these two opposing perceptions, and I think both are accurate,” said Saralyn Tabachnick, executive director of Juneau’s AWARE shelter.
“One is that in Juneau – and Alaska as a whole – people really care about each other … and there are amazing people doing wonderful, wonderful, deep and beautiful work,” Tabachnick said.
“At the same time, there is a lot of violence against women and children.”
AWARE stands for Aiding Women in Abuse and Rape Emergencies, and Tabachnick is all too familiar with statistics most of us would rather not think about.
The 2011 Alaska Victimization Survey quantified it. The study was funded by the legislature to address a gap in understanding about Alaska’s uniquely high rates of domestic violence and sexual assault. Previous assessments relied on crime statistics, which are not the complete picture because a lot of “intimate-partner violence” and sexual violence is never reported.
Researchers conducted phone surveys with thousands of women across Alaska and asked if they’d ever been a victim of domestic violence or sexual assault. Fifty-nine percent said “yes.” It’s hard to get past the statewide results.
“It’s so pervasive,” Tabachnick said. “I think people have no idea, or else it wouldn’t be like this. It’s really painful if you let it in, so people keep it at arm’s length.”
AWARE operates one of many Alaska emergency safe shelters that receive funding through Pick.Click.Give. These organizations provide safe places for women and children escaping abusive relationships and recovering from sexual assault.
Helping victims in many of Alaska’s rural communities requires a network of volunteers and safe houses. Most operate 24-hour crisis lines to immediately help women in need – even providing transportation to hub communities to help victims escape their abusers.
Maintaining that network of contacts around the Juneau region is a lot of work, but it’s well worth the effort, according to Tabachnick, because AWARE is also able to put it to use in its prevention efforts. One example is Girls on the Run, a program for girls in 3rd through 8th grade that combines training for a 5-kilometer race with lessons in healthy body image, communication skills and self-esteem. The program consists of 12 weeks of training that culminate in the race, and is offered by AWARE in Juneau, Yakutat, Hoonah and Haines and at sister safe shelters in Sitka and Ketchikan.
Funds from Pick.Click.Give. are particularly crucial to organizations that provide help in emergency situations because they are “unrestricted.” Unlike grants that pay for specific programs or initiatives, unrestricted funds can be used for whatever a nonprofit needs, like transportation, sundries or a phone card for women and children unexpectedly uprooted from their homes.
As AWARE’s Tabachnick figured, if every Alaskan who received a Permanent Fund Dividend gave just $25 through Pick.Click.Give., it would mean an infusion of over $15 million into Alaska’s nonprofit sector.
And that’s the kind of money that can change things.