April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month

Submitted by Allison Power Bernal, Prevention Coordinator, New Hampshire Coalition Against Sexual &Domestic Violence (NHCADSV)

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and this year’s theme is Engaging New Voices. At NHCADSV, we are working to engage youth-serving institutions, educators, the health care field, policymakers, and public health practitioners in recognizing how sexual violence impacts the health of individuals, families, and communities. NHCADSV is a statewide network of 13 independent member program crisis centers that provide services to vicNHPHA 195 of 225for webtims of sexual assault, domestic violence, and stalking. Member agency services are free, confidential, and available to all victims regardless of age, race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, physical ability or financial status. In 2015, the 13 member programs served 13,000 victims in NH. In addition to supporting services at local crisis centers, NHCADSV leads in statewide policy advocacy for victim’s rights, ssexual violence prevention programming, and runs the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner Program, which has placed trained nurses in 23 out of 26 hospitals in the state; SANEs improve prosecutions of sexual assault by ensuring that exams are conducted competently, collecting appropriate evidence and providing testimony at trial.

Sexual violence is one of the most pressing, under-reported, and underfunded public health problems facing our state, and is a silent driver behind other public health epidemics, including the opioid cri
sis. According to the CDC’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, the lifetime prevalence of sexual violence victimization other than rape for NH women is 51%, and the lifetime prevalence of rape is 23.5%. The lifetime prevalence of sexual violence victimization of NH men is 28%. Victims of sexual and intimate partner violence experience significantly higher rates of depression and anxiety, asthma, irritable bowel syndrome, frequent headaches, chronic pain, difficulty sleeping, and substance misuse disorders. Recently published the Journal of Preventative Medicine, “Lifetime Economic Burden of Rape Among U.S. Adults,” concludes that the lifetime cost per victim is $122,461. Nationwide, this accounts for an economic burden of nearly $3.1 trillion, which includes $1.2 trillion (39% of total) in medical costs and $1.6 trillion (52%) in lost work productivity. (Peterson, DeGue, Florence, & Lokey, 2017)

In particular it’s important to highlight the connection between the epidemic of sexual violence and the opioid epidemic in this state, and the key role the healthcare and public health infrastructure has in connecting
 victim to services. On April 17, U.S. Representative Annie Kuster held the Voices for Change panel, which follows the launch of her Bipartisan Congressional Task Force to End Sexual Violence. During the panel, Rep. Kuster recounted meeting with women in Sullivan County living with addiction to opioids, and each one said the trauma of sexual abuse was a major factor driving their addiction. This anecdote is a just a snapshot of how sexual violence underscores so many of our public health problems in New Hampshire.

This April is also a chance to highlight how sexual assault intersects heavily with other issues facing youth, including bullying and suicide. For example, the new Netflix series 13 Reasons Why is the story of a girl who documents the events, including sexual harassment and sexual assault that lead up to her suicide. The series is generating enormous response from suicide prevention and anti-bullying advocates and the public health community wanting to support youth who watch the series. The culture of sexual violence, impunity of the perpetrator, lack of support from school staff that drives the tragedy. Unfortunately, crisis center advocates and educators support victims with similar stories every day in New Hampshire, but continue to be committed to working with youth, schools, and parents to respond to and prevent sexual violence perpetrated against and by youth. 

Sexual violence prevention is about social norms change, and it works: the CDC Rape Prevention Education program is in 50 states and 4 U.S. territories, and here in New Hampshire crisis center educators focus on reducing risk factors like toxic masculinity and homophobia, exposure to sexually explicit media, family violence, lack of institutional support from community and judicial system, and societal norms that tolerate sexual violence while increasing protective factors like community connectedness, empathy, respectful peer relationships, and gender equity. NHCADSV staff are so appreciative of NHPHA for the Friend of Public Health Award, and we are excited to continue building partnerships with the public health community to prevent and respond to domestic and sexual violence in the Granite State Institute, and the American Public Health Association.

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