By NUS-USI Women’s Officer Jill McManus
The year 2018 set the scene for a rising tide of feminist activism around sexual violence and harassment, with several high-profile sexual assault cases in Northern Ireland and Ireland, Dr Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony to the US Senate and the #MeToo movement making sexual violence a prominent discussion for politicians and society at large.
The response to sexual assault cases was both inspiring to see protests outside courts but also worrying, revealing regressive public attitudes to sexual violence against women.
With sexual violence being a key issue for women’s campaigners for decades, Raise Your Voice NI was developed as a joint venture between the Women’s Resource and Development Agency, the Women’s Support Network, Reclaim the Agenda and the Northern Ireland Rural Women’s Network to tackle sexual violence and sexual harassment at a community, grassroots level.
The project is funded by Rosa Fund for Women & Girls and Time’s Up UK and was launched on 21st August 2019 in the MAC.
The aim of the project is to provide a voice for those who have been affected by sexual harassment and violence, begin tackling the issue at an accessible, community level in order to effect cultural change, and empower and educate people to change negative behaviours.
At the launch today, there were several speakers. Anne McVicker from WRDA to introduce the project and stress the importance of addressing rape culture within Northern Ireland and biased media reporting which often adds to victim blaming, sharing startling figures from UK wide research by Stop Sexual Harassment that as many as 80% of girls have experienced sexual harassment by the age of 18.
Louise Coyle from the NI Rural Women’s Network talked about the importance of the workshops for rural women, as so often victims of domestic and sexual violence are isolated within their communities and pushed into silence. Creating networks between women in rural communities is a vital component of this project.
Karen Sweeney from Women’s Support Network echoed the value of promoting this project as a grassroots movement for empowering women to speak up by their peers and creating a space for those affected by sexual violence to share their experiences and begin to change a culture of silence.
Finally, Kellie Turtle, representing Reclaim the Agenda, congratulated community groups for discussing rape culture for years, talking about her own experience of speaking out within the media. She also highlighted the value of Raise Your Voice as providing an intersectional space by talking about power structures which also enable and enforce homophobia, transphobia, racism and ableism. Raise Your Voice aims to include LGBTQ+, disabled and black, Asian and ethnic minority voices in the movement and amplify the voices of the most vulnerable in society.
Two key activists, who weren’t speaking at the event today were Elaine Crory and Helen Crickard, without whom the workshops wouldn’t be happening and who have dedicated huge amounts of time and effort to making Raise Your Voice a reality. Elaine and Helen have been working on the pilot workshops, which were trialed with two groups before the project is ran across the province.
This project is vital within the student movement. The results of the kNOwMORE consent survey were published in March 2019 and showed that just over 1 in 4 students had experienced unwanted sexual behaviour, however only 5% reported this to police. Many students who had experienced unwanted sexual contact believed what had happened to them was ‘not serious enough’ to report as a crime.
62% of respondents to the kNOwMORE survey said that they wanted better relationship and sex education in order to increase awareness of consent and healthy relationships, and projects such as Raise Your Voice are providing this vital education where our government and school system is letting us down.
You can go to their website to learn more about how to get involved.