From Bearing Witness to Breaking the Silence

By Claudia Dictus

–On October 15, the internet burst open like a can of worms, and an endless stream of #Me Too’s crept across Twitter and Facebook. The campaign was a result of the Harvey Weinstein case, where numerous allegations of rape and assault have been brought forward against the successful Hollywood producer. After years of being silenced, numerous famous actresses including Angelina Jolie, Gwyneth Paltrow and Ashley Judd, have come forward to share their stories. Among them as well was actress Alyssa Milano, who aimed to redirect the discourse surrounding sexual violence by highlighting the struggles of survivors and the magnitude of the issue, using the aforementioned hashtag. I opened my Facebook that morning, thoroughly unprepared for the earnest, and sometimes graphic stories posted by friends near and far, about their experiences of harassment, assault and even rape. Not a day later, I watched more than a hundred comments flood the AUC girls Facebook page concerning harassment and assault by one man working in the bicycle shops in Molukkenstraat. I felt the need to go through each and every story and comment to bear witness to these horror stories, no matter how much they hurt, because I know exactly how difficult it can be to reach out, how easy it is to be silenced, and how much it means to be heard.

In November 2016, I met with Stefan Plug, a third-year Humanities major at the time, and a member of Peer Support; a committee dedicated to engaging with social issues and experiences of AUC students. Together we developed a workshop for responding to sexual violence, a surprisingly salient issue in the dorms, considering the lack of collective knowledge on the subject. It is an overwhelming experience when someone discloses their story to you, and your reaction can have profound impacts for their healing process. With that in mind, we put together a plan for the workshops, with practical information for how to respond. We consulted with the Help Center for Sexual Violence, and the head office of the Police for such cases, to get the best possible current information on what an individual’s options are, in such a situation.

Claudia’s workshops opened my eyes on a very sensible topic and provided me with the tools to deal with it. This experience definitely touched me deeply and taught me different perspectives. I am very grateful for her strength and courage to speak up, she is the living example that we can still hope to bring about a change in the aspects of our culture that affect women.”– Eleanora Bloemendal, third-year Social Science major

I generally initiated the workshops with some personal advice on how to react based on my experiences as a survivor. It is important to give the survivor agency- it feels like all your power and control has been taken away from you, and having people make decisions for you or put words into your mouth can be really damaging. As such, I suggest to take into account what the various options open to the survivor are, and present these to them to allow them to choose. Next, Stefan would provide the group with a download of practical information about where to go and what to do to receive care, as well as how to confront a potential perpetrator in your social circle. This included vital information about how the Police deals with legal processes, and what they expect from you. For instance, in order to make a case, DNA evidence is vital, but can only be obtained within 72 hours of the assault, assuming you have not showered. I would balance this with more emotional concerns, like a warning about how strenuous the first interview with the police can be, and that it is important to help the survivor go there as well prepared as they can. It is also important to note that the Police isn’t your only option.

I learned more than I expected to learn. It did help me feel like I’d be better equipped to help someone.” – Marissa Koopman, AUC alumnus

Our primary goal was to increase practical knowledge and awareness, and in many ways I feel that this has been achieved. “We need to have more open and honest conversations like the ones we had in the workshops,” said Katja Dold, an LUC alumnus. Those that attended were able to come to a deeper understanding of the unspoken problems in University communities. However, approaching these issues can be very difficult, hence we also emphasized the need to maintain a safe environment in our workshops, where people could feel capable of confronting the issue.

The atmosphere was serious, but approachable and friendly. When a friend has a traumatic experience, it’s very difficult to know how to react. Workshops like this provide you with the most important things to know.”– Hugo Dictus, AUC Alumnus

It is heartening for me to know that those who attended my workshops felt this way, because as the spring semester wore on last year, less and less people showed an interest in joining. The audience we reached in the beginning was precisely the most enthusiastic one, consisting of the people who were most prepared to deal with the issue. Unfortunately it is exactly the groups that do not attend that I would hope to reach. For this reason, I decided to tackle this issue with a Community Project, in order to be able to organize more than just workshops. After completing an internship at the Help Center for Sexual Violence in Amsterdam, I came to a more complete understanding of the scope of the issue, and the impact it is having on people’s lives. According to research conducted by Stans de Haas of Rutgers WTS Utrecht in 2012, a sample of 8000 Dutch citizens indicates that at one in three women and one in 20 men have experienced sexual violence. Furthermore, a study in 2009 by the Rutgers Instituut indicated that one in eight women are survivors of rape. I know that these abstract figures are very real in our own community, with a case of sexual assault occurring roughly once a month. But more than that, I know all too well how something like this can affect your life, and I still struggle with the impacts of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in my daily life and my studies. My goal this year is to open a dialogue to create a more responsive environment for survivors, and help foster a culture that takes a clear stance on sexual violence. Ultimately, I want to make sure that no one has to struggle alone with this, that they don’t have to be afraid to reach out for help, because that can be one of the hardest things to do.

How exactly I will achieve these goals is a work in progress, but my new project partner Gabriella Thompson, a third-year Humanities major, and I intend to continue organizing workshops and events dealing with the themes of consent, hookup culture and sexual violence, as well as organizing guest lectures from experts in the field. Every woman has a story, as became visible through the #Me Too initiative, and while we could write this off as a fact of life, every little experience we ignore builds into the larger culture that previously silenced Harvey Weinstein’s victims, and countless other survivors of rapeand sexual assault around the world. Engaging in a dialogue about this is a small cost for most people, but it could make a huge difference in the lives of others. Ultimately, we can break the silence and end the sense of shame that it creates. If you are struggling with any of these issues as you read this- you are not alone, we are here for you.


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