Last week, 500 Wellingtonians rallied for a city free from sexual violence. Maddi Rowe, one of the organisers, explains why they’re calling for change.
I stood behind the makeshift stage in a pink hi-vis vest, glancing hopefully up at the low, rain-swollen sky. The dozens of makeshift cardboard signs pitter-pattered with the rhythm of the light rain. A week before this moment, the organising team of the Wellington Alliance Against Sexual Violence crammed into a tiny office lobby to talk logistics and strategy. Now, we were looking out at the 500 faces of people we didn’t know, but understood that they were hopeful and angry, just like us.
We chose to gather at the head of Courtenay Place, Wellington’s bar and nightclub strip. The place where sexual violence seeps into the brick footpaths, sticks to the dancefloors and slips inconspicuously into cocktails. The place where the problems manifest, encouraged by a culture of silence and shame that leaves citizens feeling disenfranchised and unsafe.
We yelled over bus engines and car brakes with borrowed microphones and megaphones. A Rally for a City Free from Sexual Violence, unearthing and displaying the ugly underbelly of Wellington city – the home of a sexual violence epidemic.
The WAASV came together following the huge influx of responses to a questionnaire by Sophia Harrison and Ella Lamont that asked people in Wellington to share their experiences of sexual violence in the city. The organising team consisted of a number of people who work in sexual violence prevention and student groups, including Thursdays in Black Aotearoa, the National Council of Women NZ and NZUSA, with the support of local expert sector groups such as Wellington HELP and RespectED Aotearoa.
As Wellingtonians, we noticed three gaps in particular that we implored the city council to act to fill. Our city needs urban revitalisation, where the streets are filled with structures that reflect the needs of the community. Our city needs a comprehensive revamp of the hospitality district, to train and upskill hospitality staff on sexual violence prevention procedures, so our citizens can drink without fear of anything but a hangover. Our city needs to prioritise funding streams for local sexual violence prevention organisations, so locals can access professional services with a much higher capacity.
Our goal was to invite anyone who had experience within the realm of sexual violence, because with such a pervasive and complex issue, acting as a community is the only route to tangible change. This rally was born from the same concept that every community-based action is born from – care.
Wellington has seen a 50% increase in reported sexual violence incidents in recent years – a hugely worrying statistic – with a lot of the incidents involving drink spiking and date rape. Our citizens do not feel safe any more. This is a city where circles of lamplight are safe zones, places to urgently hail Ubers, to adjust keys between white knuckles.
The dialogue around sexual violence scapegoats marginalised, impoverished communities and skirts around the broader picture – a lack of education around the complexities of sexual violence. This stems not only from insufficient resourcing but also a lack of the right vocabulary to express the issues. Because there’s a stigma surrounding it, we often can’t find the words to accurately and inclusively discuss an instance of sexual violence, words that understand the intersections between disability, race, ethnicity, cultural expression, sexuality and gender expression, as a few examples.
This means the different variations of sexual violence aren’t well understood, meaning an instance of sexual assault can be described as harassment, or an instance of sexual abuse as assault. The use of language in this realm is exceedingly powerful. It’s important to know that sexual violence in any form is not OK, and that we should challenge our notions of what we perceive sexual violence to be. It’s a vicious cycle, and it’s why we hold our decision-makers accountable. This is why we ask for better funding for sexual violence prevention groups – to hope that this information can become much more widely accessible.
As well as this, the current sociopolitical climate focuses heavily on punitive reaction, not rehabilitative prevention. Punitive measures begin an isolating process, wherein people who have experienced or perpetrated sexual violence are pushed to the margins of society. This is rape culture in action, creating ridges and rifts that are impossible to scale alone.
The Rally for a City Free from Sexual Violence was our way of holding light to the darkest corner of Wellington. We saw this happening across borders, with phone torches shining for Sarah Everard on Clapham Common in London. Sarah’s case reiterated to the whole world that those who are sworn to protect us can abuse their power – in a way that most of us know with a sickening familiarity. Watching Sarah’s vigil flowers being trampled by police boots would be a breaking point for a lot of victims/survivors in this city.
The recent sexual violence reports within the Australian parliament, meanwhile, show us the extent of closed-door rape culture – what happens when “locker-room talk” leads to sexual violence within the offices of elected officials. What it feels like to know key decision-makers are forcing their secretaries and aides into toxic, uncomfortable and life-altering situations.
The bottom line is that sexual violence is about an imbalance and abuse of power. Those who perpetrate sexual violence use this inherent dynamic to inflict harm, including the police and political leaders. People who are supposed to protect us.
With only a week’s notice, seeing a 500-person turnout to our rally was no surprise to us. Wellington showed up to say that they’re sick of seeing sexual violence on their streets, just as London showed up a few weeks before, pushing at barriers to hope something gives, and Australia erected platforms to stand parallel to parliament house and look them in the eye.
Wellington city needs care and attention. It needs community-based action. Most importantly, we need to be aware that living in the absence of sexual violence is a right, not a privilege.