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Supporting Survivors of Sexual Violence through Mentoring

AUGUST 23, 2016

Mentoring practitioners, consider this.

If one out of four mentors or mentees in your program suffered from diabetes, how would your mentoring program adapt? Likely, diabetes management and prevention would become a theme across staff education, mentor training, matching, and ongoing support for mentors and mentees. When you suggested activities, you would include options for healthy eating and exercise. When you trained mentors, the topics would include diabetes prevention, recognizing diabetic shock, or talking about chronic disease with a mentee. When you provided resources, you’d be sure to include one or two on diabetes.

The truth is that one out of four women and one out of six men will experience sexual violence in their lifetimes, often before the age of 18. Sometimes the mentoring field addresses these issues in code: adverse life events, trauma, social-emotional learning. For sexual violence survivors, this coded language contributes to the shame and stigma they may feel. Saying the words matters, and it’s an easy place to start.

All mentoring programs typically perform the legally required background checks when screening mentors for youth. Sadly, many sexual violence survivors do not report their crimes—so their perpetrators walk free and aren’t be captured by this basic level of screening. Luckily, there are several simple steps every mentoring program can take to support survivors of sexual violence and play a key role in sexual violence intervention, prevention, and response.

Develop and implement policies focused on prevention.

Prevention doesn’t have to be uncomfortable. It’s about establishing a culture of boundaries, safety, and respect. It keeps your mentors, mentees, and organization safe from legal, physical, and mental harm. All mentoring organizations ought to assess climate, then develop and implement policies on topics ranging from safe space and boundaries to unacceptable behaviors and youth protection.

Offer training to mentors and mentees.

If your mentors are doing it right, they are building trusting relationships. It’s not uncommon for survivors to finally speak up about sexual violence in this context. When this happens, it’s important that mentors are prepared to respond appropriately—or they risk interfering with their mentees path to healing and even justice. In a nutshell, mentors need to be prepared to establish safety, empower survivors to make their own choices, express empathy, and provide knowledge about sexual violence. You can read more about the SEEK approach – which stands for Safe Space, Empowering Attitude, Empathetic Response, and Knowledge - in this guide to responding to disclosures of sexual violence as a mentor, developed by the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center.

Find a partner.

You don’t have to go it alone. Mentoring organizations are experts at mentoring, not necessarily sexual violence. There are numerous organizations that specialize in sexual violence prevention. Find one.

Take a stand.

Many of the challenges that youth face and that mentoring seeks to address can be caused by sexual abuse and violence, which can lead to a lifetime of physical and mental health challenges. There is natural alignment between the mentoring field and ending sexual violence. Organize a group outing to a walk to support survivors of sexual violence. Recommend local anti–sexual violence organizations as resources to your mentors and mentees. Your public alignment on this issue can make survivors feel more comfortable coming forward to seek the help and healing they need.

There is no time to waste. We cannot accept that sexual violence affects so many teens and young adults. Mentoring is a powerful tool for empowerment and success grounded in an authentic relationship with a trusting adult. No one deserves this support more than sexual violence survivors.

Sarah Beaulieu is founder of the Enliven Project and a board member of the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center. She is working on a guide for men to support survivors and combat sexual violence. You can find her on Twitter at @sarahbeaulieu.

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