Merlene Davis: Sexual assault survivor will address rally in capitol rotunda

Herald-Leader columnistFebruary 17, 2014 

Mae Suramek executive director of the Bluegrass Rape Crisis Center.


    What: A rally to kick-off Sexual Assault Awareness Month, which is observed in March in Kentucky.

    When: 1 p.m. Feb. 26.

    Where: Capitol Rotunda in Frankfort.

    Information: Call Kentucky Association of Sexaual Assault Programs at (502) 226-2704.

    To tell your legislator to support funding for rape crisis services: Call (800) 372-7181.

For the past several years, staff and volunteers at Kentucky's 13 rape crisis centers have gathered in Frankfort to recognize the hard work they do to bring awareness to a serious problem.

At this year's Sexual Assault Awareness Month Kickoff, the purpose is the same, but they want all of us to join them in acknowledging the negative impact sexual assault has had on so many.

"Chances are everyone has been impacted," said Mae Suramek, executive director of the Bluegrass Rape Crisis Center and co-chair of the kickoff in Frankfort on Feb. 26. "If we want to show legislators this is an important issue, we need to get out the masses."

As of 2010, more than 20 percent of women in Kentucky have been raped, according to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Partner Survey. More than 47 percent of women in Kentucky have experienced sexual violence, while for men that number is 19.6 percent.

Those acts impact the victims and their families as well.

Although the national observance of Sexual Assault Awareness Month is in April, Kentucky chose March for its official events to avoid taking the spotlight off Child Abuse Prevention Month, which is in April.

Scheduled for the Capitol Rotunda, the kick-off is sponsored by the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services and the Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs, a coalition of the 13 regional rape crisis centers.

The keynote speaker at the rotunda, and at a private banquet later that evening, is Hannah Sewell, who was raped in 2008 by a fellow recruit in the military.

Sewell and her father Gerald Sewell, both of Georgetown, are featured in the 2013 Academy Award-nominated documentary The Invisible War, which reveals the high levels of sexual crimes in the U.S. military and the equally high levels of cover ups.

"What I am excited about is that our speaker is a survivor," Suramek said. "It will be powerful."

In December, President Barack Obama ordered military leaders to improve the prevention and investigation of sexual assaults within a year. He also created a task force in January to find ways to reduce sexual assaults and violence on college campuses.

In Kentucky, all rape crisis centers are participating in the Green Dot violence prevention program that teaches peers, young men and women, how to intervene in a potentially violent situation, Suramek said.

"The philosophy is not teaching girls how to protect themselves, but that anyone can have a part in stopping something from happening," she said.

Legislators should know the centers are doing that kind of work. And those same lawmakers need to know the centers are operating on fumes, financially.

"We are always under the threat of getting cut," Suramek said. "Just to continue funding is a big deal."

For example, she said, as a quasi state agency, the crisis centers could go bankrupt over the next four years just because of the amount of money that has to be placed in the retirement system for each employee. "And some have," she said. "It is just not sustainable.

"We are paid advocates, but we can't do all that we need to do. We need everyone to be advocates."

Organizers are asking us to show up in Frankfort in great numbers. We also need to wear something teal colored, the official color of Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

The rotunda events start at 1 p.m., with Sewell addressing the rally about 1:30 p.m. After other acknowledgments, the group will be given gallery passes to visit the House and Senate chambers.

What can be more powerful to a politician than seeing constituents rallying for victims of sexual abuse and the agencies that serve them?

Merlene Davis: (859) 231-3218. Email: Twitter: @reportmerle. Blog:

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