Favorite

V-Day 

Tucsonans take to the streets and stage to stop violence against women.

Thirteen years ago, on a hot night in the border town of Somerton, just south of Yuma, a 16-year-old girl was raped in the park.

She survived, but she hid what happened to her. She didn't tell her parents, she didn't tell the police. The only one who knew was her little sister, 9-year-old Lily DeSantiago.

"She was my idol. I adored her more than anything," DeSantiago says. "I always took care of her. É That night she went out on a double date. I didn't go. I thought if I'd been there it wouldn't have happened."

The girls were the youngest children in a strict Mexican Catholic family, where "virginity is like gold. Both my parents would have been devastated" by the news so they were never told. Likewise, the girls didn't go to the police. Since her sister had been raped on a date, she feared she would hear the standard dismissal that what happened was not "rape but regret."

Burdened with guilt and an early lesson of violence, young Lily grew up "traumatized. I didn't like to be touched. I was reserved. I had male friends but at a distance."

DeSantiago didn't know it then, but she was experiencing the classic reactions of people whose loved ones have been raped. Luckily, when she got to college at the UA, she took a class meant to educate students about rape and she began to understand what had happened to her and her sister. She got the help she needed to deal with the past, and nowadays works as a domestic violence counselor at a shelter for battered women and volunteers as a crisis interventionist at the Southern Arizona Center Against Sexual Assault (SACASA). She's still a full-time student and she now runs the UA program that got her started on the road to recovery.

"What happened to my sister influenced my whole life," she says. "God in a sense gave me these things to do: I sleep good at night."

So convinced is she of the efficacy of openness that this Saturday, DeSantiago will publicly tell her sister's story and her own at the V-Day Celebration (see "Take Back the Fight," page 13). "If you have problems and don't deal with them now, they're gonna come back and haunt you. É Counseling can help even a long time later. É It's a battlefield for women out there."


MONTSERRAT CABALLERO'S heroic name comes to her by way of two sources. Her father's favorite opera singer bears the name of Montserrat, a famous monastery in the hills above Barcelona. Caballero is Spanish for knight in shining armor.

The lofty nomenclature suits the petite Caballero, a young woman who does battle daily in the unending war on violence against women. As a crisis interventionist at SACASA, not only does she talk to women on the phone in the hours after they've been raped, she also has the daunting task of going to hospital emergency rooms to help rape victims face to face.

"Their reactions vary from shock to feeling numb to being upset and angry," says Caballero calmly, sitting one day last week in her office on North Country Club Road. The cozy red-brick building offers a back parking lot and side entrance to protect its clients' privacy, but the friendly atmosphere can't conceal its grim work. On this particular morning, a young woman is bent over sobbing in the waiting room, her mother's arm around her shoulder.

Cabellero, a tiny woman crowned with a cascade of dark curls, has been on the job four years now, and she volunteered four years before she joined the staff. Her agency, formerly known as the Tucson Rape Crisis Center, and the Wingspan Domestic Violence Project will both be beneficiaries of the V-Day fundraiser this weekend. So great is the variety of sexual violence perpetrated against women ("I'm always shocked," says DeSantiago, "there's always something new and different") that Caballero is unable to predict her days on the job.

"I never know when I'm going to work what my day will be like," she says. "It could be just answering our crisis line, or responding to local emergency rooms."

During a one-hour interview her crisis phone will ring three times.

"I don't know if there is a typical case," she says. "Young women are vulnerable. Sixteen- to 24-year-olds have the highest number of people at risk." In a recent case, she was called to an emergency room to meet a 16-year-old girl who had been raped by a schoolmate, at school, the night before.

At the hospital, Caballero and the agency's other crisis interventionists walk women through assorted medical and police procedures, often spending up to five hours in the emergency room.

"The first thing we do is empowerment," Caballero says. "The victim's power and control has been taken away, and the key is for us to support them as they make decisions. É If a person says, 'I want to go home,' that is her decision."

The SACASA workers educate women about their choices, "giving them the options of police report, medical care and emotional support." Crimes against minors must be reported, but women 18 and over have a choice. If they decide to file charges, they must get police authorization for the collection of forensic evidence--which means a full-scale gynecological exam at the precise moment when they least want anyone interfering with their bodies. To deal with that particular trauma, SACASA has a roster of on-call physicians and nurses specially trained to be sensitive to the needs of sexual assault victims.

"Before these programs were in place, it was a grim picture. Women were re-traumatized and re-victimized."

When they're finished at the hospital, women are invited to make use of SACASA's extensive follow-up counseling services.

According to Bridget Riceci, Caballero's boss and the executive director of SACASA, the need is great. One in six American women will be sexually asssaulted in her lifetime. Over 2,000 people call SACASA's crisis line each year.

Some 732 cases of adult sexual assault were reported to law enforcement in Tucson during 1999, Riceci says, but professionals working in the field estimate that actual reports to police add up to just a fraction of the actual assaults. Nationwide, some 16 to 32 percent of rape victims report the crime to the police, but "in Arizona," Riceci says, "we believe it's closer to 10 percent." Victims fear being blamed.

Even now, 30 years after feminists first organized to raise consciousness about violence against women and to establish rape crisis centers around the nation, victimized women are too often held responsible for their own rapes.

"It's easy for juries to find perpetrators responsible in stranger-rape cases," Riceci says, "but it's extremely difficult (for them) to find guilt in acquaintance rape. And in 75 to 80 percent of sexual assaults in the U.S. the victim and the perpetrator know each other."

So SACASA, she says, not only aims to reduce trauma to the victims and to provide treatment and counseling, but to educate the public about the reality of rape. "Sexual assault is a violent crime," Riceci says, "but sexual methods are the tools by which violence is committed: It's about power, control and hurting someone else." Longterm, the SACASA vision is that "we will live in a world where all people feel safe and free from sexual violence."

For front-line workers who see girls and women right after an assault, the most important job, Caballero believes, is to tell them: "This was not your fault. I believe you."


AT WINGSPAN, IN A brightly painted storefront on Sixth Street in the Warehouse District, victims have another whole layer of prejudice to work through. The Wingspan Domestic Violence Project offers services to lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered people, says executive director Claudia Reynoso, who presides in an inner office just beyond a cheerful meeting room filled with couches. She's a small woman, too, conservatively dressed in a brown jumper, and like Caballero she speaks calmly and with determination.

Gay or straight, people battered by the their loved ones are often blamed for what has happened to them, she says. But society's view of the sexuality of Wingspan's clients makes their situation more complex.

"They may be closeted, and they may have a fear of the police," Reynoso explains. "All in all, our experience with the Tucson Police Department has been positive. But victims don't necessarily know that. É There are the same kind of relationship issues (as among heterosexual batterers) but there's an extra threat--to out someone. 'If you leave me I'll tell everyone that you're a faggot.' If your family would rather see you dead than queer, that's a powerful threat."

Domestic violence is as big a problem among gay and lesbian couples as it is among heterosexuals, Reynoso says.

"Statistics show that domestic violence occurs in about one in four couples--about the same as the heterosexual rate," Reynosos says. "It's a pretty big problem, and it's an underreported problem of the gay, bisexual, lesbian and transgendered community."

While the Domestic Violence Project's parent organization, Wingspan, is supportive of their efforts, some gay activists don't want the problem publicized because of the "idea that it can be used against the gay community," Reynoso notes. "There is so much already the radical right will use against us, it's not an unfounded fear. But it doesn't justify ignoring abuse. É

"In comparison to the battered-women's movement, we're about 15 years behind. There's a denial of the problem and victim blaming, just as there's been with (straight) women."

Operating since 1996, Wingspan, like SACASA, "offers services to the victim, brings awareness to the issue and works toward perpetrator accountability." In fiscal 1999-2000, the project served 715 people. And while in straight relationships women are far more likely to be battered than men, lesbians, Raynosos says, are "capable of committing acts of violence."

"We get more women, they're more likely to seek services, more likely to identify a relationship problem," she says. "For men, there's more refusing to identify as a victim."

In a typical call to the project's 24-hour hotline, a counselor will ask, "Are you safe? Is the abuser still there? Do you want to call 911?"

The immediate goal is to ensure the victim's safety. Counselors will agree to meet with the caller but they cannot go to the home. If the caller needs to get away, project staff can get lesbians into a shelter run by the Brewster Center and house men in a hotel or motel. And like SACASA, the Wingspan project offers follow-up counseling and peer support groups, but the emphasis is on having the survivor make the decisions.

"Usually the bottom line is that the victim has to leave the abuser. But they're coming from a relationship where the other person makes all the decisions. We cannot dictate that the sole goal is to leave. We help them develop safety plans, and help them understand that it's up to the abuser to change. We help to educate the victim: This is not what a lesbian or gay relationship is."

Reynoso sees the dynamic between abuser and victim as similar to the one in straight relationships: "The term 'domestic violence' implies it's a relationship issue, people with a problem. But domestic violence is about one person using power to get and maintain control over somebody else. It's about power and control."

Reynoso sees some signs of hope; "otherwise," she says, "I wouldn't be here." Just this week, Arizona Attorney General Janet Napolitano announced a plan allowing Arizonans to donate money for domestic violence programs by checking a line on their tax forms. And last June, the Arizona statutes on domestic violence were modified to include same-sex violence, resulting in more arrests. "The victim doesn't have to press charges; it's out of her hands. The officer does not have to see assaults, but only see the effects of the assault. É

"There's a lot of work to do, but we have come far. Having a tool (the legal statute) is better than not having a tool."

Caballero, likewise, says she feels some optimism for the future, though it's hard, in her job, not to grow cynical. But she keeps on keeping on.

"Sexual assault and domestic violence are secrets everybody knows. They disproportionately happen to women and children." If she gave up her job, she says, "I couldn't live with myself as a citizen of the world, knowing that they're blamed for what happens."

DeSantiago, the sister of the rape victim, adds, "The day there is no rape is the day we can say that there has been change."

Tags: ,

More by Margaret Regan

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Readers also liked…

Latest in Feature

  • Holidaze

    Your post-election apocalypse guide to making the holidays a bit brighter (if that's possible)
    • Nov 24, 2016
  • The Battle at Home

    For combat veterans, marijuana may be the best weapon in their invisible war against PTSD
    • Nov 17, 2016
  • More »

© 2016 Tucson Weekly | 7225 Mona Lisa Rd. Ste. 125, Tucson AZ 85741 | (520) 797-4384 | Powered by Foundation