DECATUR — Megan and Braden Hull were among the crowd of about 100 people who decried sexual violence at Thursday's Take Back the Night rally.
It was not the first time the Decatur couple has participated in the event, which is annually hosted by the Growing Strong Sexual Assault Center. With their 3-month-old daughter in tow, the Hulls said they joined the rally at Central Park to show support for both sexual violence survivors and the work that Growing Strong does within the city.
"They help people," said Megan Hull. "I went there, so they impacted my life. I appreciate the things that they do for our community."
Since the 1970s, Take Back the Night events have grown into an international initiative to protest against sexual violence and violence against women. Growing Strong has been a part of the movement since 1985, according to Executive Director Cathy Byers, and she said the event continues to be an encouraging and empowering experience for those who attend.
After releasing teal balloons into the air, participants marched to Central Park from three locations: Grace United Methodist Church, the Herald & Review and Millikin University. On the way to the rally, the marchers carried signs and chanted phrases like "Stop the violence, no more silence."
The theme of Thursday's rally, "Embrace Your Voice," coincides with the overall message of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, which is recognized throughout April. This year's remembrance is the first since the nationwide #MeToo movement triggered by the sexual misconduct scandal involving Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and others; the movement encouraged hundreds of people to speak out about experiences with predatory sexual behavior and workplace violence and sparked a national conversation.
Byers said the theme of embracing one's voice doesn't only apply to survivors of sexual violence, as it can also refer to everyone else.
"Here in 2018, it's still just a topic that's not talked about and victims of it are still not believed," Byers said of sexual violence. "Year-round, our goal is to raise awareness and bring in community members so we can start having those conversations."
During the rally, Growing Strong counselors shared words of encouragement through poetry and survivors of sexual violence were given the opportunity to embrace their own voices and share about their experiences. Ample time was also dedicated to educating the attendees on issues of consent and raising awareness of the global threat of human trafficking.
A 2017 report by the International Labor Organization and Walk Free Foundation estimated that 40.3 million people are entrapped in modern-day slavery, and 4.8 million of them are in forced sexual exploitation.
"The issue of human trafficking goes beyond sexual exploitation and also includes forced labor in many different industries in nearly every country and every state across the globe," said Laura Dean, assistant professor of political science at Millikin.
Dean and a group of her students spoke about their community-wide efforts to bring attention to human trafficking. Cristen Seiders, a sexual assault counselor for Growing Strong, further touched on the community's role in combating both sexual violence and behavior that can silence survivors.
Instead of using words and actions to blame victims of sexual violence, she said, people should be more willing to hold abusers accountable.
"I'll tell you what, I don't care how short her skirt is. I don't care if she was drinking ... because drinking doesn't cause rape," Seiders said. "Short skirts doesn't cause rape and flirting definitely doesn't cause rape."
"The only thing that causes rape is a rapist," she said.
To Byers, calling out those who commit acts of sexual violence is one of the first steps to fight the issue head-on. "We need to start believing when disclosures are made and to not blame the victims. We need to hold offenders accountable, through and through."