By Joshua Armstrong
Cronkite News Service
WASHINGTON – Arlene O’Brien couldn’t believe it.
It was the first day of training on the Tohono O’odham reservation for Safestar, a Justice Department program that trains everyday women to help sexual assault victims. The 14 women who were there to learn how to collect evidence and provide first aid began the program by introducing themselves.
Every one of the 14 said she had been affected by rape. Every one said that either she, a family member or a close friend had been sexually assaulted.
“It was just overwhelming to me,” O’Brien said. “It opened my eyes to what really was happening.”
O’Brien, the Safestar project coordinator with the Southwest Center for Law and Policy, had assumed that some of the participants might have been assaulted or might have personally known someone who was. She had lived on the reservation all her life, and she knew that sexual assaults were prevalent and underreported.
But she never expected it would have touched all of them.
Safestar is a pilot project of the Justice Department’s Office on Violence Against Women. It trained women on the southern Arizona reservation this summer to collect evidence and act as first responders to sexual assault victims. The volunteers are armed with cases of Buccal swabs to collect DNA samples, changes of clothes for the victim and over-the-counter medicines, including Plan B contraception.
In 40 hours of training, the volunteers – some of whom used vacation time to attend – learned evidence collection procedures and chain-of-custody rules used by the FBI. They also learned first aid and how to connect victims with mental health services, shelters, law enforcement and professional victims’ advocates.
The 14 women chosen for the first Tohono O’odham Safestar training course were selected for their reputations among the tribal members. O’Brien said she was looking for “someone who someone would go to for help,” first by picking a few women she knew, then finding the rest by word of mouth.
Genoveva Antone was just such a woman. She came to the training after years of helping others on the reservation. And when it was her turn to speak, Antone, just like the other Safestar volunteers, said her life had been shaken by sexual assault.
As she recounted the experience of telling her Safestar colleagues this summer about the assault, Antone’s eyes began to water during an interview five months later in Arlington, Va. When asked if she feared reprisal from offenders or their families, she said the only thing she had to overcome was an inner fear.
When asked what that inner fear was, she said “OK.” She exhaled slowly as she drew her hand downward from above her head to her chest.
“I was a victim,” she said.
Antone is one of the women who did not talk about her assault. She has only recently spoken about it openly. But she says now she has to confront the issue, and revisit her own trauma, if she is going to aid other women who have been raped and brutalized.
“I had to change in order to help others,” Antone said. “Otherwise, it was going to tear me up…. That took me forever. It’s not something that goes away.”
O’Brien said the silence is not uncommon.
“People don’t talk about it; they don’t,” O’Brien said. “At least these women are coming forward – not publicly, but at least they are coming to someone.”
When Antone tends to a victim, she said she does not say much. There are no standard words of comfort or any prepared instructions.
“You just listen,” she said.
Antone said she tries to provide traditional tribal aid to victims, to help them heal in a way that might be described best to non-O’odham as “spiritually,” but she could not find a way to describe it in English.
But even with treatment and support, the wounds of sexual assault never completely heal – for her or others, Antone said. Being there for others does her well, but the experience will always linger.
“It helps,” she said, “but it doesn’t heal.”