The Mission organizes against gender violence
An email drafted by the survivor of an attempted rape in San Francisco’s Mission District earlier this month prompted community members to speak out against what women’s rights activists describe as a national issue of “gender violence.”
“A woman is raped every six minutes in the United States, and that’s just what is being reported,” said Rupa Marya, a physician and lead singer of the San Francisco-based musical group Rupa & the April Fishes.
Marya organized the Jan. 11 “Mission Solidarity to Keep Our Streets Safe” march in response to multiple reports of attempted sexual assaults in the neighborhood over the past year. More than 200 community members reportedly attended to show their support.
“If you look at the statistics, there’s this background noise of violence towards women that has just been part of our language and our society that in some ways, we accept,” said Marya.
With the sentencing of Frederick Dozier in December—the man who sexually assaulted three women along the Mission District’s 24th Street in 2011—the issue of sexual violence has recently made local headlines.
However, activists say that false perceptions about the roles of the victim and the perpetrator, as well as society’s normalization of violence, remain a challenge in the struggle to end rape.
“It’s important to talk about all those things that expose people to violence. When we talk to youth, we hear stories about society accepting violence and oppression and normalizing it,” said Alma Munoz, development director at San Francisco Women Against Rape, San Francisco’s primary rape crisis center. “When we come [into schools] and do presentations about anti-oppression, healthy dating and bullying, we are creating a language for youth so that they are able to rationalize what they are going through.”
With a focus on social justice and prevention education, SFWAR is a volunteer-based organization that provides counseling, medical and legal resources to survivors of sexual violence and their loved ones. Formed by a group of female activists in a basement apartment 40 years ago, it is the second oldest rape crisis center in the nation and provides a 24-hour crisis hotline for survivors.
According to Munoz, ending rape is not as simple as locking away the perpetrator; it requires a collective community effort of addressing and shifting societal perceptions of privilege and accountability.
“Part of rape culture is society telling us that if we as women choose to dress a certain way, drink or walk down this street, then we are choosing to expose ourselves to sexual assault,” said Munoz. “It also relates to understanding the dynamics of oppression in terms of who is the oppressor, the oppressed and the bystander—and seeing your own participation in this scenario.”
In a neighborhood with vast social and economic disparities and an increasingly diverse population, many Mission residents say that neighborliness has long been replaced by a “bystander” mentality.
“The neighborhood has changed so much over the last 15 years—there are a lot of new faces and I’m definitely more cautious of my surroundings. I won’t even let my girls go to the store by themselves in the daytime,” said Josette Leiva, 44, whose family has lived in the Mission for over 50 years. “There is still a network of people who have lived here for a long time, and we try to keep an eye out for each other.”
The survivor of the Jan. 6 assault stated in the circulating email that she feels “incredibly lucky” that neighbors did not “fall prey to crowd think,” assuming that someone else was going to help. During the attack, a neighbor heard the woman’s screams and turned on a light, which scared the assailant away.
“I don’t think that the Mission is more or less violent than any other neighborhood,” said Marya, adding that she appreciates the sense of safety she personally feels in the neighborhood. “There are several groups living here that come from different social and economic backgrounds, [and] races and operate with different rules. The more we try to break down those barriers and acknowledge each other, the more likely we are going to look out for one another on the street.”
As a preventative action against future acts of sexual violence and a way to connect with and celebrate the power of community to end rape, SFWAR will host its Eighth Annual Walk Against Rape on April 27. Registration for the event is now available through the SFWAR website.
“Rape is not just a women’s issue,” said Munoz. “We all have mothers, daughters, sisters, wives—rape touches everyone. With this event we hope to raise awareness and invoke accountability.”