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Women in Athens, including editors at The Red & Black, have had experiences being catcalled in downtown. (Photo/Rebecca Wright, http://rebeccamariewright.com/)

Due to sexual harassment and assault downtown, women’s organizations are gathering to discuss suggestions on how to make downtown and other environments safer.

“Bodily autonomy is really important to me,” said Claire Warren, a junior women studies and entertainment media studies double major. “There hasn’t been a time I’ve gone downtown where I haven’t been catcalled when I’m going out, and that’s kind of aggravating, although it’s very normalized ... I still don’t want to experience it every time I go out at all.”

Some University of Georgia students believe that there needs to be change to help prevent sexual assault and make the community feel more safe.

Safety first

Allie Norris often finds herself ready to call the police while walking home late by herself and prefers to have someone accompany her.

“We definitely need more security around there, and if they have people that you can walk home with if you need to,” the freshman entertainment and media studies major said. “I know sometimes I’ll be walking home late from studying at Starbucks, and I’ll have my phone out with 911 pressed just in case.”

Students are not alone in wanting change in the downtown climate. Organizations such as Athens Campaign for Access, Reform and Education, Safe Sex Fairies, Students for Sensible Drug Policy and Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equity have an eagerness to create change.

Though organizations are collectively advocating for change, local government and university administration need to take initiative to instate change as well, said Ursula McPherson-Vitkus, president of the UGA chapter of URGE.

“We’re loud voices and we’re a lot of voices, but we’re not voices at the top of the university and the local government here at Athens and UGA,” McPherson-Vitkus said. “Fortunately, I can say that there’s a lot of momentum right now for change.”

Organizations are opening up the platform for Athens residents and students to voice their desire to ask questions about measures to prevent sexual assault.

On Monday, April 2, Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement hosted a panel discussion about making downtown safer for women at Walker’s Coffee and Pub. This event is part of a series of events in Athens and UGA happening in light of April being Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

These organizations believe it’s important for everyone to have a safe place to go and know there are people out there looking out for them, and this is what they are striving to provide to the Athens community in the wake of an unsafe downtown environment.

Stephanie Flores, a fourth year international affairs, women’s studies, and political science major who is involved in sexual assault awareness initiatives, said providing a platform that is relaxed and open is crucial to constructive conversations.

“People don’t really want to talk about this or think about this if it’s not in their face,” Flores said. “Doing this makes it so that it can be in their face but with space for them to leave if they need to, for food for them to grab if they want to do that, with a drink in their hand in a comfortable environment for them but in a way that still pushes that boundary of discomfort so that we’re still having a very frank conversation.”

A community effort

These organizations want to help individuals of all genders, races and backgrounds who haven’t experienced sexual assault to understand the issue.

Zach McDowell weighed in at the forum from the perspective of someone standing in solidarity alongside sexual assault survivors.

“I am a white male, and in these cases, I can only weigh in on the issue of sexual assault and systemic discrimination in a purely observational way,” McDowell said. “I’ve never been sexually assaulted or racially discriminated against. I only know people who have.”

For people in McDowell’s position, he said listening to victims and offering support is beneficial when standing in solidarity.

“I’m essentially trying to do my best to compensate for my lack of experience with listening and emotionally supporting those who do experience these things,” McDowell said.

There is a call for downtown businesses to contribute in making downtown safe again as well.

Within these conversations, it was suggested at the forum for businesses and stores to offer their vicinity as a safe space for people to enter when they may feel threatened.

Farrah Johnson, founder of the nonprofit organization in Athens, Safe Sex Fairies which provides resources for safe sex, said major purpose of conversations like these is to let everyone know that they are not alone.

“The more that we can openly talk about it, the more we can help people and let people know that there are people out there who have been through similar stuff that you’re going through and letting people know that you can get help,” Farrah said.

Ashley Soriano contributed to this article.

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