By Carmen Sinclair
As part of the Zero Tolerance Against Gender-Based Violence campaign I met with Rowan Miller director of Somerset & Avon Rape and Sexual Abuse Support (SARSAS) to discuss SARSAS’ commitment to the campaign, its relation to the work of SARSAS and its importance. SARSAS are an invaluable organisation offering free and confidential support to victim-survivors of rape, sexual violence and abuse. They offer counselling services, one-to-one support, an e-support service and maintain a helpline. Offering support to both women and girls, as well as to men and boys.
An integral part of the Zero Tolerance initiative is the Bristol Zero Tolerance pledge which commits organisations to work in partnership to tackle gender-based violence, abuse, harassment and exploitation. SARSAS have committed themselves to the zero tolerance initiative by signing the pledge. The initiative, however, directly feeds into the work of SARSAS. As Rowan explained to me, part of SARSAS’ vision is to have a society free of sexual violence and abuse, stressing the initiative’s fundamental importance by ensuring that many organisations and individuals commit themselves to supporting a vision that SARSAS itself intrinsically supports.
Throughout the interview I consistently noted Rowan’s firm belief in both the importance and message of the campaign. Rowan highlighted the initiative’s substantive focus, stating that “there is an awful lot of sexual violence, abuse, domestic abuse, harassment and exploitation that happens with people in Bristol, particularly with women, but also with children and some men, so it’s a really important pledge.”
Given the prevalence of gender-based violence in Bristol, Rowan pinpointed the necessity of the initiative as a tool for involving all sectors and elements of society in order to promote zero tolerance against gender-based violence. Markedly, she strongly emphasised that it is not enough for only specialist organisations that focus on these issues to pledge their support to the initiative, in order to instigate and maintain lasting change, non-specialist organisations must also be involved. She expressed positivity regarding the commitment of a variety of organisations to the initiative, stating that their involvement “means that people are listening, they are taking it seriously and they are trying to do something about it, and I think that what this is showing, is that gender-based violence is everybody’s business, and I think it is great.”
Ensuring Bristol as a city works together to create a zero tolerance approach to gender-based violence should help to create an attitudinal shift towards how sexual violence and abuse is understood. Rowan stressed that for SARSAS’ service users one of the most important effects of the campaign will hopefully be to show them that sexual violence and abuse is an issue which is taken seriously. She noted that one of the main issues for victim-survivors of sexual violence and abuse is the fear of not being believed, feeling shame, embarrassment, or even feeling at some level that it was their fault. She hopes that the initiative will change that by “showing survivors of sexual violence and abuse that actually this is a really big issue that lots of people are taking seriously, and you will be believed, and you will be supported if this has happened. People need to speak out about it and their voices are really important.”
The main thing I took away from my interview with Rowan is how important the notion of promoting zero tolerance against gender-based violence is. How shifting attitudes and approaches to gender-based violence can hope to encourage survivors of sexual violence and abuse to come forward and seek help, as well as help to eliminate this form of discrimination. Without enlisting the support of society as a whole, we cannot expect fundamental change. Once society begins to take gender-based violence seriously, it becomes harder to commit and condone. Therefore, the zero tolerance initiative’s emphasis on encouraging and supporting a variety of organisations to take action is crucial to ensure Bristol becomes a city free from gender-based violence, abuse, harassment and exploitation.
If you wish to contact SARSAS, or for more information regarding their work and services, see their website at: www.sarsas.org.uk