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Vigil Empowers Sexual Assault Victims

More than 50 women and men formed a circle on the steps of Memorial Church last night, each clutching a tall white candle to represent their joint efforts to empower survivors of sexual violence and recognize the end of Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

Participants in 10 “points of light” vigils at universities across the country—including Brown University, the University of Kansas, and Rutgers University—simultaneously lit candles that signified the process of building a community of support for survivors of sexual violence.

According to Sarah A. Rankin, director of the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, this is the first year that universities have planned to hold their vigils at the same time, adding that this move emphasizes the national importance of sexual assault awareness.

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“A survivor of date rape created a foundation to bring unity to the different Take Back the Night efforts across the U.S.,” Rankin said, noting that Take Back the Night began as a march in which participants protested the fact that women are often not able to walk alone safely at night.

As the participants stood in silence clutching their candles, several stepped into the middle of the circle, where they shared personal stories of how their lives have been affected by sexual assault.

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“It can be cathartic to talk openly about sexual assault in a calm, supportive environment,” OSAPR volunteer Ashlyn B. Garry ’10 said, adding that, “We don’t talk about sexual assault at Harvard, and sharing like this is a way to take the stigma away and make a more inclusive community of people who care.”

After sharing their stories, some members of the circle held hands, while other participants shed tears or smiled with relief.

Shannon E. Cleary ’12, a volunteer at OSAPR and chair of this year’s Take Back the Night activities, said that, in addition to addressing painful memories of sexual assault, creating a space for dialogue about these difficult issues can serve to help people understand the seriousness of sexual violence and ultimately inspire them to prevent it in the future.

“We are all affected by sexual violence, but all of us can be part of the solution,” she said, adding that talking about the problem and getting other community members involved is a step in the right direction.

Despite the somber tone of the evening, Cleary said that the vigil aimed to conclude Sexual Assault Awareness Month on a positive note.

“Tonight is about acknowledging pain and hurt and violation, but it’s also a celebration,” she said. “We are celebrating recovery, and we are celebrating hope.”

As the sun set and the wind picked up, many attendees clasped their coats around them and huddled close with their friends, leaning their faces toward the warmth of their candles.

“The light shows that we’re all standing here together,” Garry said, adding that, “It sends a powerful message that we care.”

—Staff writer Alice E.M. Underwood can be reached at aeunderw@fas.harvard.edu.

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