For sophomore exercise science major Shayla Sanders, domestic violence wasn’t about awareness: It was a reality.
As a teenager in high school, Sanders became one of thousands of victims of domestic violence. In a relationship that lasted over a year, Sanders knew she had to get out of it once it turned foul.
“It was terrible and I was very ashamed of what was going on,” she said. “I got out of the relationship by finally realizing the danger that I was in. It took a lot of courage and a strong support system.”
Sanders is one of a small percentage of victims to seek help once she knew she was in trouble. She reached out to her mother and friends to help her escape, and was able to end the relationship safely.
October may be Domestic Violence Awareness month, but for Sanders and thousands of others it means much more.
“Domestic Violence Awareness month means a time where we can encourage more healing and open discussion about violence within relationships and families,” Sanders said.
The VCU Wellness Resource Center peer education group Sexual Assault and Violence Education by Students partnered with a local YWCA on Tuesday during the annual Red Flag campaign in honor of domestic violence awareness month.
The group planted 200 small red flags into the Bear Hall and Harris Hall lawns. The campaign is a bystander intervention program designed to help prevent and help educate people on the warning signs of an abusive relationship.
“The goal of the campaign has actually become international and it’s in almost every state in the United States,” said Tammi Slovinsky, the Well’s coordinator of sexual assault and domestic violence services. “It’s focused mainly on college campuses to encourage students to speak up [and] to get involved as an active bystander if they see or hear abuse.”
The flags are meant to be a “visual representation of abuse and unhealthy relationships,” Slovinsky said.
According to the VCU National College Health Assessment of 1422 students, 6 percent experienced sexual abuse, 11 percent experienced intimate partner violence and 5 percent experienced stalking in the previous 12 month. From August 2011 to August 2012, the VCU coordinator assisted 18 victims of sexual abuse, 19 victims of domestic abuse and seven victims of stalking.
Slovinsky said some examples or warning signs of domestic violence include a partner being controlling, forcing unwanted sexual contact, being followed by your partner, excessive jealousy, stalking or hacking of social media accounts and isolation from friends and family.
Slovinsky encouraged students to look for these warning signs in their relationships or even the relationships of people they are close to.
If a friend or associate appears to be in an unhealthy relationship, Slovinsky encouraged students to speak with them.
“Just listen, let your friend know that you are there no matter what and try not to be judgmental,” Slovinsky advised. “That should help open the door to more communication and hopefully getting them out of the unsafe situation.”
Sanders said she would advise someone else in a similar situation to “be honest with those that are around you.”
As the Well’s non-profit community based partner, the YWCA also provides services to students who are victims of sexual assault, relationship violence and stalking.
“The YWCA’s affiliation [with the campaign is] connected to helping to educate people about domestic violence and red flags and concerns with regards to relationships and dating violence,” said local YWCA sexual violence specialist Shawntee Wynn.
“If anyone is in crisis or they have questions about domestic or sexual violence or is wondering [if] they’re in a situation, or they’re struggling in a situation they can always call and get support from our hotline,” Wynn said.
Students can use the University Counseling center for help, to report an act of abuse to Title IX coordinator Reuban Rodriguez, or find additional resources.
The YWCA provides free group and individual counseling for victims, offers a crises response to most hospitals, supports any victim of sexual or domestic violence and has a 24/7 emergency hotline.