SASO Sexual Assault Services Organization leading the fight against sexual violence

Ellie Ellis Enlarge photo

Ellie Ellis

Across cultures and for centuries throughout the history of humankind, oppression has empowered the dominant population while causing emotional and physical havoc in the lives of the inferior group. Oppressive acts such as mass genocide, segregation, discrimination and sexual assault have all shaped our world’s history and affected the way we interact with one another. In order to take steps toward global equality, it is pertinent that authorities learn to exercise their power in a fair and just manner that does not rob people of basic human rights.

On a more realistic note, it is important to recognize that leveling the oppressive playing field is a nearly impossible goal, considering the balance of power that is necessary to maintain a functioning society. Rather than rejecting authority, we just empower the oppressed to vouch for their own rights and freedoms while acting as advocates for the rest of the oppressed community.

Durango’s Sexual Assault Services Organization aims to do just that by preventing sexual violence and other forms of oppression by tackling the problem at the root of its source, or the beginning links of the oppressive cycle. Sexual Assault Services Organization, or SASO, is a local, nonprofit organization supported by grants, donations and fundraising efforts. SASO is dedicated to providing advocacy to victims of sexual assault and providing education and prevention programs aimed at increasing public awareness and safety, in an anti-oppression framework. SASO’s mission is not only to provide advocacy services for primary and secondary victims of sexual assault, but also to prevent violent and oppressive acts from ever occurring.

Maura Doherty Demko, executive director of SASO, says, “Oppressive acts such as mass genocide, sexual assault and discrimination all utilize violence as a tool to gain power. When and only when, we realize why and how people use oppression to gain power will we be able to make a difference.”

SASO addresses these issues by working with local schools to develop programs that teach students the necessary skills to prevent oppressive tendencies and to act as bystanders to empower others. These programs have been well received by the community as an effective method of preventing sexual assault and violence.

For example, SASO’s Child Assault Prevention Program,which teaches self-assertiveness and refusal skills to elementary age students, reported an overall success and satisfaction rate of 97 percent as reported by the students and educators who participated.

“We put great thought and energy into making sure our presentations were engaging, relevant and met the students on their level. We want to ensure we are able to inspire students to question the way they view the world by empowering them as bystanders, to change the world and not just watch it happen,” says SASO’s community outreach coordinator, Rhonda Ferguson.

At the high school level, the bystander-intervention program teaches young adults about the dynamics of sexual violence and how to intervene as bystanders to prevent sexual assault. Ninety-four percent of students who participated in this program said they wanted to influence their peers to be less accepting of oppression and sexual violence.

Currently, SASO is collaborating with a group of male Animas High School students to create a mentor program that will hopefully be even more effective at preventing bullying and sexual harassment in Durango public schools.

Contrary to popular belief, Demko said, “Sexual assault isn’t about sex, but rather about power and control. Acting as a form of oppression, the perpetrator allows themselves to feel a sense of power over another through the violent act.”

As high school students, we may not realize the harsh realities of sexual assault, but it is a bigger issue in our community than one might think.

According to the National Violence Against Women Survey, about 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men have been or will be victims of sexual assault, about one sexual assault occurs every two minutes. Yet according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice, sexual assault is one of the most under-reported crimes, with 60 percent being left unreported.

Luckily, groups such as SASO are relentlessly working to prevent sexual assault through community outreach and providing advocacy services for survivors.

SASO runs a 24-hour, confidential hotline that provides advocacy services for survivors and family members or survivors of sexual assault and violence.

The hotline is staffed in shifts by a group of trained volunteers who each have gone through extensive training to become effective advocates.

It receives about 130 crisis calls each year. In 2012 alone, SASO received more than 500 hours of volunteer work from community members and hosted almost 300 educational programs.

“I feel like SASO is a trail-blazing organization,” says Melody Baker, a consistent volunteer with SASO. “As far as nonprofits go, they are hard to keep going, and SASO has been working for 30 years. The women that work at SASO don’t just come to work, they live the organization’s mission statement in the community as well.”

If you or a loved one becomes a victim of sexual assault or violence, please call SASO’s free and confidential hotline at 247-5400.

Also, if you would like to get involved with SASO’s teen focus groups to help design an effective bullying/sexual harassment prevention program for AHS, please contact me at ellieellis.ahs2014@gmail.com.

Ellie Ellis is a student at Animas High School. As part of her education there, she recently completed an internship with Durango’s Sexual Assault Services Organization. She is the daughter of Jackie Ellis and Richard Ellis of Durango.

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Cliff Vancura/Durango Herald