Monday, October 18, 2010

Silent Witness Project

What does it mean to be a silent witness to intimate partner violence?  And what does it mean to lend them your voice?

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and contains one of the most poignant events of the year.  On Thursday, emotional participants filled the Zoar Lutheran church in Perrysburg, Ohio to lament loss and celebrate survival. 

Bowling Green State University's Women's Center hosted it's 10th annual Silent Witness Project, part of a national campaign to end violence against women and increase the visibility of domestic homicide, while inspiring collective action for social change.

The Northwest Ohio chapter of the Silent Witness Project was established by BGSU's Women's Center staff in 2002 in response to the 2000 murder of a BGSU graduate.  The body of Michelle Rizzi was found on campus in 2001.

This chapter is affiliated with the Silent Witness National Initiative,creators of the remembrance ceremony.  And to call the presentation "powerful" is an understatement. 

The room is filled with black shrouded silhouettes.  A reader stands in front of each, and one by one, as their stories are told, the shroud is removed, revealing a red figure.  

Each represents a woman killed by intimate partner violence. 

In Northwest Ohio, 49 figures were in attendance.  This number is astonishingly high, and unacceptable, because even one is still too many.

BGSU graduate Megan Gerken is the Silent Witness Project Coordinator; a service position arranged through AmeriCorps.  With a degree in social work, she will hold the position for a year.  So far, she's really enjoyed it: 

I love that the Silent Witness Project's focus is to remember girls and women as more than another statistic, but as real people who lived and loved and whose entire life was not just about the abuse she suffered, but it is something that unites all of the Silent Witnesses together and can be used to help other women and prevent tragedies like that to happen again.

Gerken started things off, welcoming everyone and introducing the key players. 

Then Dr. Mary Krueger, the director of the Women's Center, spoke briefly, reminding the audience that "Why didn't she leave?" is a judgement, and not a question.  Responsibility for intimate partner violence can no longer fall on the victim-- we need to hold abusers responsible for their actions and the law accountable for protecting women's safety. 

Dr. Sarah Rainey of BGSU reading for Charlotte Evans
The keynote, and last speaker of the evening was Mary Lauterbach, mother of Maria Lauterbach; the marine who's disappearance gained national attention before it was "swept under the rug." 

Once police arrested the same man who had raped Maria just eight months earlier for her kidnapping and murder, Mary watched her daughter fade from the media and become another statistic.  Realizing how the system had failed Maria, she successfully passed legislation that would allow for a base transfer after filing sexual assault charges in the military; a simple procedure that may have saved Maria's life.

BGSU student Anissa Mahmood, 22, attended the event for the first time.  “I knew what the event was about but I don't think I expected how much it would affect me, emotionally. It is sad, but I think it really raises awareness about domestic violence and pays tribute to those women who lost their lives,” she said.

BGSU student Stephanie Bush, 22, has attended several Silent Witness presentations.  “It is important that these victims and their struggles are not forgotten, these were people with families and lives,”  she said, stressing the event's connections to the past, present and future.
Silent Witness is also important because hearing the stories may spur someone into action, whether that be leaving or supporting a friend who is with an abusive partner. Every year, I leave Silent Witness very angry. That was too many victims, too many opportunities for someone, anyone, to take action and help.

BGSU student, Shayna Noonen, 19, was taking a women’s studies class about interpersonal violence where she was asked to be a reader.  She took on the part of Michelle Mielecki, a 21 year old University of Toledo student, and made a very personal connection.
It was an incredibly emotional moment when I realized that both Michelle and I loved the Cleveland Indians. Before then I could distance myself, feel as though this violence was something that other people experienced, but when I read my witness's biography I knew there was nothing different between her and I. This same thing could happen to me.

The Unveiling Ceremony raises awareness for those who don't know how problematic intimate partner violence is, begins a healing process for those who do, and proves there is strength in numbers.  Most importantly, it personalizes the issue with women who have already been affected in the community. 

While 49 is just a number, Michelle Rizzi, for instance, is an unforgettable name.  And as the words of the event's closing song ask, "Remember my name.

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