I spent a recent Saturday morning at a field house in Juneau, Alaska, where girls with pink hair and stars and rainbows drawn on their cheeks run 27 laps around a gymnasium track.
That may not seem like international news, but it should be. Their race was part of the international “Girls on the Run” program, which is amazingly effective at empowering young women.
I watched most of the race from the sidelines with Andrew, a grandpa wearing a driver’s cap, and Jennifer, the mother of one of the young runners.
“Good job! Keep going! Love you! You’re awesome!”
“Remember to breathe!”
Encouragement is the hallmark of the program, which pairs girls with adult mentors who help train them to run a 5K — and, more importantly, talk to them about what it means to be women in modern America. “You have to set a goal to become a powerful girl on the run,” Ati Nasiah, the local organizer, with a feather stuck in her hair, told the girls before the race. “Each of us is unique, and that is what makes us so powerful. With every heartbeat and every breath, we are changing the world.”
These girls are changing the world and Alaska, the state FBI crime estimates rank as having the highest rate of reported rape in the country. Teaching young women that they can be whoever and whatever they want to be is an important part of preventing rape and abuse. I visited Alaska in December because you voted for me to cover rape in the United States as part of CNN’s Change the List project, which focuses on bottom-of-the-list places like Alaska.
Jennifer, the mom I watched the race with, and whose last name I’m not using to protect her privacy, was a victim of domestic violence. Her husband beat her, she told me, and she got together with him when she was 13 and he 22. One reason Jennifer brought her daughter to Girls on the Run, with the help of a scholarship and free sneakers, is that she doesn’t want her daughter to accept violence against women. “Instead of me just sitting back and taking it, (my kids) see me standing up,” she said. “And that’s what they need. Otherwise, they will grow up and think it’s OK.”
That’s hugely important. But the largely unspoken reality also remains: Victims aren’t to blame for rape and domestic violence; offenders are. So, while they are essential, programs like Girls on the Run aren’t enough to end what Alaska’s governor has termed its “epidemic” of rape and violence against women.
To stop the violence, men have to stop raping and battering.
That seems like common sense. But it’s still controversial.
For evidence, look no further than Zerlina Maxwell, an attorney and rape survivor who went on Fox News last year to make that very point. Other pundits argued that women should carry weapons to protect themselves. No, Maxwell said. Men should stop raping, and that would solve it. For those remarks, she received death threats. On Twitter, one person wrote, according to a news report, “I hope you get raped and your throat slit.”
This same pro-gun sentiment came up in the comments sections of other Change the List stories published earlier this month about rape in Alaska. “Time to arm and train the women to defend themselves,” one person wrote on my op-ed about a lawless villageat the far edge of the state, where troopers fly in by plane. That’s wrong-headed. Instead of putting the burden on women to defend themselves, the state should continue to expand its Village Public Safety Officer program. I hope it soon will include that village.
“What we have been doing for the past 100 years hasn’t been working,” Maxwell told me by phone from New York. “Focusing on women’s behavior isn’t working.”
Andrew, the adoptive grandpa who I spoke with during the race in Juneau, gets it, too. “They need a program for boys, that’s for sure,” he told me. “They’ve got this program to rebuild the confidence and self esteem in the girls, and keep them going. But where is the support structure to stop it in the boys? You know, break the cycle.”
Alaska has more of a jump-start on that than some states. It was encouraging to see members of a local men’s high school basketball team acting as cheerleaders for the Girls on the Run event. Those players, from Juneau’s Thunder Mountain High School, are participating in a program called Coaching Boys into Men. It’s designed to teach young men about safe relationships and respect for women. Gov. Sean Parnell, a Republican, has requested $12.4 million to fund his “Choose Respect” initiative, which also is aimed at preventing violence and helping survivors.
That’s progress. But such programs should be expanded.
We have to keep encouraging girls, but always remember offenders are to blame.
Some of that should happen through formal training and programs. It’s also on all of us to call out inappropriate behavior when we see it.
The family I sat with as we watched the girls sprint by understood this. When Jennifer’s son reached out to give his sister a whopping high-five, his mom told him that he had to remember to be gentle — to support her, not hit her.
“Hands are for high-fives and hugs, not hitting,” she said.
The next time his 9-year-old sister came around, he gave her the softest of bear hugs.
The young runner seemed grateful for his support.