Elizabeth Smart recounted her experience with abuse to BYU students, putting her audience into the mind of a victim as part of a campaign to end violence against women March 5.
Smart, famous for her nine-month abduction at the age of 14, spoke about her personal experience and the true mentality of those who are victims of abuse, as well as advocating for the BYU Women’s Services and Resources Office Voices of Courage campaign.
Headed by the BYU Women’s Services and Resources, the Voices of Courage campaign’s main focus is to educate men and women on how they can create a culture of non-violence. The campaign is built on the premise that each individual can have an impact on the level of violence in their lives.
Voices of Courage is different from other violence prevention campaigns. LaNae Valentine, director of Women’s Services, explained that the program focuses on attackers rather than on victims.
“In the past, the traditional approach to any kind of sexual assault or violence prevention is to educate the victim, which is usually a female or a child,” Valentine said. “That hasn’t really helped to reduce the amount of violence in the culture. Victims aren’t the ones causing the violence; they just receive it.”
Victims are often blamed for the abuse they are subjected to, or blamed for being in situations that “allow” them to get abused. One of Smart’s main points was that a victim should not be judged or blamed, because nobody but the victim truly understands the situation.
“One of the most common questions I’m asked is, ‘Well, why didn’t you run?'” Smart said. “I want to answer this question for all victims, for all who are asked, ‘Why didn’t you scream, or yell or do something?’ None of us have the right to say those kinds of things, because you don’t know what it’s like to be in that situation.”
Rebecca Hamilton, a graduate student intern working with Women’s Services, iterated beliefs similar to Valentine’s. She said focusing on victims is synonymous with treating a symptom rather than the disease itself.
“It’s never the victim’s fault, so even educating them doesn’t help,” Hamilton said. “Many women say, ‘Oh, I took a self-defense course.’ Well, that’s great, but if you’re raped you’re still raped.”
Many women in abusive relationships ask themselves what they are doing wrong. However, very few programs and campaigns focus on the perpetrators of the crimes.
According to the Department of Health and Human Services, women are the victims in roughly 85 percent of domestic abuse cases, and women between the ages of 20–24 have the highest risk of violence with an intimate partner or spouse. Additionally, nearly half of college students report they have experienced some form of violence or abuse at one point in their life, which leaves speculation as to how many additional attacks go unreported.
Smart used herself as an illustration that abuse and violence can happen to anybody.
“If I were a flavor of ice cream I would be vanilla,” Smart said. “Just plain old vanilla, and how could this happen to me?”
Valentine believes our culture is more violent than we realize, but average citizens are well within their means to change it.
“We really do live in a violent culture. There’s violence all around us in our movies and our video games,” Valentine said. “We want people to ask, ‘Are we OK with that? Or do we want to do something about it?'”
Voices of Courage is focused on decreasing the level of tolerable violence in society by encouraging all citizens to speak up against situations that may be, or seem, abusive.
“All of us know victims of abuse, and if we know the victims, then odds are we know the perpetrators,” Valentine said. “So why aren’t we talking more to them? It’s not just putting them in some anger management group; we want the people around that person to say that behavior isn’t OK rather than just telling the victim they need to get away.”
Valentine, Hamilton and those involved with Voices of Courage believe every person can make a difference as long as they are willing to speak up when they see abusive behavior or signs of abuse. Part of Smart’s contribution to this campaign will be speaking about the “Bystander Effect” and how many people sit back instead of speaking up.
Smart recounted an experience in which she was in the Salt Lake Public Library with her captors and was approached by a police officer asking to see her face, which at the time was veiled. Valentine speculated that if more people had spoken up upon seeing a relatively odd scenario, such as this one, Smart potentially could have been rescued much earlier.
“In Elizabeth Smart’s case there were probably tons of bystanders that could have helped her during that whole saga that just didn’t,” Valentine said. “(There were) people that saw her and thought, ‘That’s weird, what’s going on? But hey, it’s none of my business.'”
Smart said victims of abuse can get back at their abusers by simply moving on.
“The best punishment you could ever give him is to be happy and to move on with your life,” Smart said. “He does not deserve a single second more, and at the end of the day God is our ultimate judge, and everything that has been taken from you will be restored.”