When the UAA Justice Center conducted their statewide victimization survey in 2015, something became overwhelmingly clear: Alaska has a problem. The rate of violence against women in the state, either intimate partner violence, sexual violence or both, is extremely high.
The survey, which was conducted from May to August in 2015, estimated that 50 percent of women throughout the state had been the victim of abuse at some point in their lifetime. But why are these rates so high?
“No one has the direct answer to that,” Hannah Guzzi, a health promotions specialist at UAA, said. “Any research you look at, any article you read… There are so many different things that can affect that, but there’s not one thing that you could directly say that causes what’s going on here.”
The survey was conducted as a follow-up to a similar survey done in 2010. Besides looking at violence over a lifetime, it also showed that 8.1 percent of women reported violence over the last year, a drop from 11.8 percent reported in the 2010 survey. The lifetime composite was over 50 percent in both surveys.
Betty Bang is a family nurse practitioner who works at the Student Health and Counseling Center at UAA. She works with Guzzi on the health promotions team and, together, they teach bystander training courses on campus.
The training is funded by a grant through the state and, since July of 2015, has reached 1,550 students through 102 presentations, with 10 more training sessions set up through the rest of this semester alone.
“We give people skills on what you can do if you see something that could lead to harm,” Bang said.
These skills focus on the three d’s; distraction, delegation and direct action.
“We also try to paint a picture of what the problem is, currently, in Alaska,” Guzzi said. “A lot of people will say they [had no idea about] some of the statistics we go over.”
Though it might not be the sole factor, they both agreed that isolation can be a contributing factor in the high rates of violence. Isolation, as Bang noted, does not only refer to rural parts of the state. Isolation can occur throughout Alaska, including right here in Anchorage.
“You can become isolated in your relationships, where your partner maybe doesn’t want you working, maybe doesn’t allow you to drive. If you’re isolated, then you don’t have that feedback from your friends and family, saying, ‘Hey, what’s going on here? Your partner isn’t treating you very well,’” Bang said.
The bystander training is a way to combat abuse by equipping students, faculty and community members with skills that can help them identify and stop abusive situations before they escalate further. The training also opens up the conversation about sexual and domestic violence, two important factors in making cultural changes.
“A lot of what universities have been doing is reactive rather than preventative, and we’re not going to stop these things from happening if we’re just reactive,” Bridget Coffou, the prevention and education coordinator for the Office of Equity and Compliance, said. “This isn’t an issue that can be solved by one or two people. It has to be a cultural change, and everyone needs to be on board with it. It has to be a community effort.”
A change in culture is the crux behind seeing the domestic and sexual violence rate lowering. UAA has a lot of outlets that are fighting for this cause, but getting full campus involvement is important for pushing change forward.
“Since it is a [commuter] university, I think it’s hard for students to get involved on their campus. I think that’s really important… [we need] people to feel a part of the university,” Bang added.
Coffou has worked closely with the Title IX training. The training has been met with a mixed response across campus, but it has helped open up conversation on a subject that oftentimes can be uncomfortable. Coffou felt that more consistent conversation can be a good thing.
“By doing this training you’re not only learning what your rights are underneath Title IX, because it’s not just for faculty or staff, it’s for students. And it’s not just for someone who has experienced this type of violence, it’s for every student,” Coffou said. “The students that I’ve talked to about it have said that they found the training beneficial, they learned things that they didn’t know, which is always the goal.”
Bang has also helped spearhead the Domestic Violence Sexual Assault Coalition for Change, or DVSA, at UAA. Coffou mentioned that DVSA and the bystander training have the most energy behind them at the moment, but emphasized the need to collaborate in order to fully capture a cultural change.
“That’s the key part. We have to be working together whether it’s through DVSA or through my office or through Betty [Bang]’s office, we have to be working together on this,” Coffou said.
Michael Votava, the assistant Dean of Students and director of Student Conduct and Ethical Development, was also integral in the founding of the DVSA coalition, which started in the spring of 2015.
“The mission of the group is to coordinate efforts by groups on campus in providing education and training programs promoting awareness and prevention in interpersonal violence and sexual assault,” Votava said.
The DVSA meets once a month and consists of faculty, staff and students and they act as a groupthink, looking at ways to better their departments, as well as the campus as a whole. Getting students involved is still a crucial part, which could assist in finding areas of specific need or focus.
“[We want to] really understand what [students] are experiencing on a day-to-day basis, what’re they seeing and then trying to address those specific problems,” Guzzi said.
“Folks would like to see an environment where people feel safe. That’s the bottom line,” Bang said. “We realize that one training is not going to make the difference in the culture, or necessarily that person, but think of what else they’re having? Everyone is required to do that [training], maybe they’ll go to one of the talks we have on campus, so we’re trying to reinforce this message over and over.”
“And the more they hear it,” added Guzzi, “the more likely they are to adapt.”
If you would like get more involved on campus, the DVSA coalition meets Nov. 29 from 4 – 5 p.m. in the Student Union Leadership Lab.