It is finally here, and I am beyond thrilled to be part of the Nachtraad’s campaign: Choose to change. The latter is a local project and is part of the Orange the World global campaign organized by the United Nations Women. This campaign consists of 16 days of activism and highlights the topic of gender-based violence.
The global theme for this year is the following, Orange the World: Fund, Respond, Prevent, Collect, but in the city of Groningen, the various organizations organizing the event, including the Night Council, have decided to give the campaign a more symbolic title by calling it Choose to Change.
In this blog, I am taking the opportunity to share with you a piece that is brutally honest and reflects some of the challenges that the city needs to tackle and overcome regarding the subject of sexual violence.
I will start with a personal story that took place in 2018. I remember I was incredibly busy with university and was setting up a small feminist book club that could bring students together to engage in informational debates. I, together with a friend, started creating events to bring people in and promote the platform. During one of the events, we talked about the history of black feminism and the reasons why it was not a popular topic in the history books.
I still remember the passion and the energy that we both had during that one-hour session when we saw 30 people show up for our small event.
As we wrapped up, I was walking towards the door to say goodbye to the attendees, but one of them took me aside and told me:
Thank you for organizing this. It means a lot to my niece here. She has not come out of the house for months due to an accident that happened. She felt lost, but today she was keen on listening to both you girls speak.
I got goosebumps and had to fight back my tears while trying to empathize with the lady standing in front of me. I was shocked and could not believe what I had just heard. We had helped one girl in that room feel better.
I looked at the participants as they were leaving and exhaled deeply, feeling emotionally loaded. I was happy for our successful event but upset to discover such a shocking, traumatic experience had happened in the same place where I lived.
I was so overwhelmed that I completely forgot to mention it to my friend. The next time we met, I told the story and said to her: Girl, do you realize how powerful voices, our voices, can be? What happened right there has to be another reason why we have to keep doing this.
I remember that scene to this day, and I keep it very close to my heart. You could say that was the final spark that made me so passionate to apply for the Women’s March Groningen, an organization that advocates for women’s rights. I wanted to make that girl and many others in the city feel safe and welcomed. I wanted to remind them that despite the horrors we come across in our lives, we should never give up and should always stand up for each other.
Even though the city of Groningen is small, and people here seem to mind their own business, you would be surprised by the number of perpetrators wandering the streets and ready to attack the next victim. Let me assure you that these are not some horror movie plots, but real-life encounters that happen during the late-night hours.
The accident that I mentioned earlier was a case of a minor rape. She could have been any one of us. She was the unfortunate teenager who was returning home from a party and was suddenly cornered and thrown off her bike.
Yes, as shocking as it sounds, it was right there, in the same city where I and others, countless students have studied and partied.
According to CSG, the sexual center in Groningen, approximately three out of four students have experienced sexual violence and intimidation, a rather alarming number for a small city like Groningen (and the most surprising thing to me is that you rarely hear anybody talk about this issue). The cases of sexual violence are considerably higher when compared to the numbers in other cities, and that is what alarms me the most.
How can we remain silent when the city threatens the very people who inhabit it?
I understand that talking about such topics might cause a lot of distress and discomfort amongst you, but it is time we stop talking about sexual violence as if it was a taboo issue. I, as an international, am happy to see local platforms like Nachtraad help educate people on this topic by launching various informative campaigns and events. Knowing that something is happening to address the problem makes me feel a little bit safer. This, however, is only the very first step to changing the situation in the city, for we all need to be engaged and learn more about ways that we can facilitate victims safety, inform each other and develop awareness services. We want you to join this initiative and realize that we together can CHOOSE TO CHANGE our environments.
It is time we speak up to not only address the topic but to provide a helping hand to all the victims. We can either choose to remain silent and ignore this life-changing traumatic phenomenon or stand up for a better, safer and friendlier city.
As I narrated in the upper mentioned story, it takes only a few comforting words to turn around the life of a sexually harassed person and free them from their burden. They need to know and hear that we are here for them. When we stand up for others, we are also standing up for ourselves!
As an expat student, I am calling all the international students in the city to remain vigilant and tackle the topic of sexual violence from a scholar and a social perspective. We all deserve to live in a city that feels safe, so let’s all help towards making that a reality and prevent sexual violence from happening.
I leave it up to you folks to take notes, to inform yourselves, to engage in awareness projects, and think about the positive impact that our unified voices can have.
We can choose to change how we fight and how we respond.
We can choose to change how we want to shape and influence our societies.
Sincerely, Jona Hax