5 Ways to Support Survivors and Keep International Women’s Month Alive

Group walking and holding hands

AnnieCannons trains survivors of human trafficking and gender based violence to become software engineers, and finds them work by offering enterprises the chance to get affordable, high quality software that makes an impact. As this International Women’s Month draws to a close, thought a small piece of AnnieCannons class could give all women a way to continue this work for ourselves for the rest of the year.

#1 Silence the voices of those who say you can’t

People usually think the most challenging thing AnnieCannons does is teach survivors to code, but they’re wrong. The hardest thing AnnieCannons does is to silence the voice inside our students’ heads – voices that have told them their whole lives they are worthless, lesser than, inadequate.  Our challenge is teaching them that they are allowed to make mistakes, to be imperfect, and that that is not only okay, but normal. They even put chips in a jar whenever they apologize for something they haven’t done wrong.

Like most women, our survivors are their own worst critics. Even our top developers started in class saying they didn’t think they could do programming. These days, we ask rooms full of accomplished professional women how many think they could write software code. They respond, nearly unanimously, “not me.” Fun fact: most of them, and every student who passes the screening to get into an AnnieCannons class – definitely can.

We all have these voices. Some say what we did isn’t good enough, while some tell us not to bother trying. We hear them everywhere, from video games to toy aisles to sports teams that start with “Lady.”  Our whole lives.

But here’s a miniature AnnieCannons lesson: Only you can silence those voices, and you’ll only truly succeed in doing it when you yourself accept that they are wrong.

#2 Don’t exploit other women

When we founded AnnieCannons, we established a principle: we would never ask our students to use their likeness or their story for our profit, or as a condition of receiving the opportunities we provide. Many other organizations we knew did this. Everyone, from marketing consultants to TV News, told us to do it, and we refused. Why?

A survivor’s past is her past, not her present. To introduce her on the basis of something that happened in the past would be like introducing Warren Buffet as “a guy who sold chewing gum to get by.” Her trauma is not her identity – and evoking her trauma minimizes her identity.  Unlike Warren Buffett, describing a survivor by something that happened in her past re-traumatizes her. Reopens her wounds. To use that process to raise money for anything or anyone but the survivor is, itself, exploitation.

If you get an email (or attend an event) with a horrible story about a human being who has been abused, asking you to contribute to an organization to help them, ask the organization if they got the survivor’s consent, and how, before you donate. Ask if they compensated her for her time. We’ve seen survivors’ photos and stories written into fundraising emails and signed with their name, even though the survivor didn’t write a word of it. Her “consent” was a waiver she was required to sign in order to receive charitably-funded services.

We can lift each other up without hurting each other to get there.

Survivors’ trauma is not your entertainment, and we call on the media to cease making it so.

#3 Recognize that you occupy a majority

Yes, women comprise the majority of the world’s population, and collectively we have immense power to drive change.

But there’s another majority worth considering: the majority of women have survived sexual assault.

This is a hypothesis, but is based on several years of research and evidence.

Our work on Survivors.io led to conversations with hundreds of diverse women, and those conversations made clear that the reported number of women who have survived sexual assault is not just low – it’s deceptive to the point of falsehood. We submit that MOST women in this country have survived at least one sexual assault.

Every day, in an effort to recover from what was done to them, our students have to face what most women try hard to forget: someone else wronged them, but only they (the survivor) suffer. Thanks to #MeToo, survivors are finding community with one another, and they are finding the strength to stand together.  But #MeToo can only really be called a “movement” if it results in action.

#4 Start with your own household

Ending human trafficking will take generations, and it will take focused, altruistic political will – just like ending gender discrimination or sexual assault. And before we talk about finally ending exploitation, we must talk about how we stop creating more of it.

Rather than teaching girls not to drink or to wear conservative clothes, let’s actively teach boys to ask for consent – even in public schools. Let’s correct the social constructs that let someone confess on video to sexual assault, then get elected president.

The reality is that our constitutional justice system was designed to give equal rights to white men with property, and considered women and black people to be among their property. That system is not suited to prosecute abuse: where the key evidence is survivors’ testimony, the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard of proof is close to impossible – even with a rape kit. That system values a man’s career over a woman’s basic right to choose what is done with her body. As a result, privileged abusers like Brock Turner and Robert Kraft serve little to no time in jail, even when caught red-handed. Combined with law enforcement and juries’ tendency to see women and minority witnesses as less credible, and the effects of trauma on human memory, these systems function to penalize reporting – but not abuse. This creates opportunities for more abuse, and renders abuse generational.

This system needs affirmative change. We must vote for candidates who give us clear, direct, feasible solutions that center on women to change this system, so that our daughters are never held back by fear of being violated, as our mothers were, and as we are.

#5 Demand a world without abuse

We want a world without abuse. To make it, AnnieCannons is first proving that those improperly shamed by our culture deserve its respect (and that, when given a real opportunity, they are, in fact, excellent software programmers). We’re making survivors of the worst forms of human exploitation and gender-based violence wealthy enough to demand respect, to influence politics and become entrepreneurs, to change the world from the bottom up. And we’re creating a business model that proves that the “female” way of running things actually works better than the traditional way. One life at a time.

You are one life too, but you are not alone, either.  If you are still living with someone who abuses you for economic reasons, you’re not the only one. But AnnieCannons is only one way you could build a new career for yourself, and find a much better life for yourself and your children, free from abuse.

If you’re safe from abuse, but have a bed to help a friend who needs to get away, let her know. Know that you are helping to end a generational cycle of abuse that could otherwise hurt your kids one day, too.

Stand Together. Stand with us. Know no shame. Don’t apologize. We are getting there, and we deserve it.

Join us at AnnieCannons.org.

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