Scheherazade Tillet was the keynote speaker at the International Women's Day breakfast, sponsored by the Woman's Club of Evanston, the YWCA Evanston/North Shore and Northwestern University.Photo by Mary Mumbrue

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The trappings might have seemed those of a bygone ladies’ luncheon – an upscale breakfast in the grand ballroom of the Woman’s Club of Evanston – but the solemnity of the topic soon quelled greetings and networking. This was the third annual celebration of International Women’s Day in Evanston, sponsored by the Evanston/North Shore YWCA, the Women’s Center of Northwestern University, the Frances Willard Historical Association, the Youth Job Center, the Evanston Women’s History Project and the Woman’s Club.

March is Women’s History Month, and International Women’s Day is March 8, celebrated one day early in Evanston this year. The international theme is “Equality for women is progress for all.” Cece Lobin, women’s empowerment manager at the YWCA Evanston/North Shore, said the day offered a time to “reflect on the economic, political and social progress – progress that is very slow and often uneven. There is violence against women and children across the world. We need to end gender-based violence.”

Some Progress but Violence Persists

Keynote speaker Scheherazade Tillet gave an overview of progress made and the road ahead. In 1974, she said, a woman earned about 56 cents for every $1 a man earned. While the ratio is now 77 female cents for every male dollar, even that 77 cents is not spread equally: White women still earn more than minorities – about 87 cents per male dollar.

Politically, there is progress, said Ms. Tillet. In Congress, there are 101 female representatives, and 20 percent of the Senate is female. “And we may even have a female president in a couple of years,” she said.

Socially and monetarily there is growing sentiment to end violence against women and girls – domestic violence, rape and sex trafficking, as examples.  On college campus, there is a “collective force” against sexual assault, Ms. Tillet said. “People are talking about sexual assaults.” Title IX, a federal program mandating equality in sports, has become a vehicle for talk about sexual assaults. Further, she said, Peter and Jennifer Buffett, son and daughter-in-law of investment billionare Warren Buffet, have made a 10-year, $80 million commitment to funding programs aimed at ending violence.

But violence against women and children remains, in this country and abroad, Ms. Tillet said. One in three women will be raped or beaten in their lifetime. Sexual violence is the number-one violent crime on college campuses; one in five college women report a sexual assault, she said.

Shifting the Center

To help end violence against women and girls, Ms. Tillet suggested several strategies: making visible what is now invisible, shifting the center, working with other movements and involving teenage girls. Teenage girls, said Ms. Tillet, allow access to boys, school, teachers, parents, churches and future generations in the effort to promote non-violence.

An artist by nature and training, Ms. Tillet, Master of Arts in Art Therapy, uses art to address sexual violence. She and her sister, Salamisha Tillet, Ph.D., cofounded A Long Walk Home, Inc., which uses art therapy and the arts to try to end violence against women.  A Long Walk Home,  among other initiatives, has the Girl/Friends Leadership Institutes, a year-long art-based program designed to empower teenage girls to find their own voices, advocate for other girls and lead campaigns in their schools and communities dedicated to ending violence and achieving gender equality. 

To “shift the conversation,” Ms. Tillet said, people must recognize “who we are talking about.” Drawing from her recent experience with female groups in India that are working to end sex trafficking  there, Ms. Tillet said the focus should be on “the last girl – the most vulnerable, the most marginalized.”

Focusing on the vulnerable of society, said Ms. Tillet, “will benefit the entire community.”

The silence was broken occasionally by the crisp sound of leather on polished wood as listeners – these were all busy women – from time to time left or returned to the room. The luxury of the Woman’s Club surroundings melted away, uniting the some 300 women as Scheherazade Tillet told the story of how she and her sister, Salamisha, came to create the Story of a Rape Survivor, SOARS, and co-found A Long Walk Home.

In 1997, four years after the event, Salamisha disclosed to Scheherazade that she had been the victim of rape. The sisters already knew the pain that sexual assault inflicts on a family. When they were young, their mother was assaulted and she returned to Trinidad and Tobago, never to return to their home in Boston.

Hoping to help her sister heal, Scheherazade turned to her camera, and asked Salamisha to allow her to photograph the healing process.  Several years later, the sisters created SOARS, a multimedia performance that incorporates Scheherazade’s photographs and Salamisha’s story.

SOARS has become the visual centerpiece of A Long Walk Home, which partners with rape crisis centers, universities, high schools and state coalitions to provide inclusive programs for underserved communities. Since its founding in 2003, ALWH says it has educated more than “100,000 survivors and their allies to build safe communities and end gender violence.”

Scheherazade Tillet continues her work in rape counseling and art therapy. Salamisha Tillet is an assistant professor at University of Pennsylvania.

The reading of a poem, “I Write,” and a dance performance by young women from an ALWH leadership class in Chicago’s Lawndale neighborhood closed the program.  United by their sympathies, the sisters’ stories or perhaps their own, the some 300 women at the International Women’s Day breakfast broke their silence with a standing ovation for the Scheherazade Tillet, the dancers and the poet. 

Facts About Rape

A handout with information from rapevictimadvocates.org titled “Dispelling the Myths/Revealing the Facts” stated that some estimates indicate that “every six minutes of every day, someone is sexually assaulted in the U.S.”

The handout presented 14 “myths” about rape, answered by “facts” from the organization among which:

Myth: Sexual assault is a crime of passion and lust.

Fact: Sexual assault is a crime of violence. Assailants seek to dominate, humiliate and punish their victims.

Myth:  You cannot be assaulted against your will.

Fact:  Assailants overpower their victims with the threat of violence or with actual violence. Especially in cases of acquaintance-rape or incest, an assailant often uses the victim’s trust in him to isolate her.

Myth:  Sexual assault is an impulsive act.

Fact:  Seventy-five percent of all assaults are planned in advance. When three or more assailants are involved, 90 percent are planned. If two assailants are involved, 83 percent are planned. With one assailant, 58 percent are planned.

Myth:  Assailants are usually crazed [psychopaths] who do not know their victims.

Fact: As many as 80 percent of all assailants involve acquaintances.

Myth: Gang rape is rare.

Fact: in 43 percent of all reported cases, more than one assailant was involved.

Myth: Many women claim that they have been sexually assaulted because they want revenge on the man they accuse.

Fact: Only 4-6 percent of sexual assault cases are based on false accusation. This percentage of unsubstantiated cases is the same as with many other reported crimes.

Myth:  Only young, pretty women are assaulted.

Fact:  Survivors range in age from infancy to old age, and their appearance is seldom a consideration. Assailants often choose victims who seem most vulnerable … old persons, physically or emotionally disabled persons, substance abusers and street persons. Men are also attacked.

Myth:  It is impossible to sexually assault a man.

Fact:  Men fall victim for the same reasons as women: They are overwhelmed by threats or acts of physical and emotional violence.  Most sexual assaults that involve an adult male victim are gang assaults.

Myth:  As long as children remember to stay away from strangers, they are in no danger of being assaulted.

Fact:  Children are usually assaulted by an acquaintance, a family member or other caretaking adult. Children are usually coerced into sexual activity by their assailant and are manipulated into silence by the assailant’s threats and/or promises as well as their own feelings of guilt.