Kenai Peninsula residents from all walks of life joined together to kick start the governor's "Alaskans Choose Respect" campaign and end domestic violence and sexual assault on Wednesday afternoon.
Marching from the Kenai Gazebo to the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center, the 75-person crowd rallied behind leaders Kenai Mayor Pat Porter, Soldotna Mayor Peter Micciche, Alaska Labor Commissioner Click Bishop, and LeeShore Center Executive Director Cheri Smith.
"Today's the first day of making a change," Bishop said about the awareness campaign during a speech at the march's end. He outlined Gov. Sean Parnell's plan of increasing awareness of the problems, increasing support of related non-profit organizations and increasing law enforcement presence on the issues, including harsher penalties for perpetrators.
Across the state Wednesday, 18 communities marched simultaneously in an effort to bring Alaska's domestic violence and sexual assault rates to attention, all lead by various lawmakers. In Juneau, Parnell signed legislation to allow magistrate and district court judges to grant protective orders in cases of sexual assault, domestic violence and stalking. This is significant for residents of rural areas, who only have access to magistrates or district judges.
According to Smith, non-Native Alaskan women are killed by domestic violence at 1.5 times the rate of women in the Lower 48. For Native Alaskan women, the rate is 4.5 times that of the Lower 48.
"In Alaska 50 percent of all homicides are domestic violence related," she said.
And these statistics penetrate the Peninsula community.
Last year, the LeeShore Center housed 214 women and children for a total of 10,787 bed nights. On average, the center provided service to 22 new and different women a month.
"Alaska has high numbers. We really need to do something to make the state and community safe for everyone," Smith said. "We're all in this together. It's up to us as individuals to be good role models for our children."
Smith's message was something that Porter stressed as well when addressing march attendees.
Porter said the word "respect" is an important idea that begins at home.
"You don't talk to your mother that way," she said, quoting her father's discipline when her brother's mouthed off at their mother. But, also, Porter said, girls and women need to learn when they're not being treated respectfully, and get out of the situation.
Jo Poindexter, a Kasilof resident, said she marched in solidarity Wednesday out of respect for women.
"Just because I'm a woman and I want to see it stop. It doesn't have to happen," she said. "I think it's about time."
Part of the campaign against domestic violence and sexual assault on the Peninsula includes focus on the disproportionately high instances affecting Native Alaskans.
"Domestic violence is not a traditional value," read a grant-funded campaign poster created by the Kenaitze Indian Tribe to target this epidemic.
Beatrice Sagoonick, a tribal advocate for domestic violence with the Kenaitze Indian Tribe, said that somewhere along the line the respect that Native Alaskans were taught as children was lost.
"I am Alaskan Native and I was taught respect," she said, adding that her culture stresses respect for land, animals and elders.
"A lot of Native families don't know what to do and act out with substance abuse and domestic violence," she said.
To Karen Stroh, who works at the LeeShore Center, said that the state's "Alaskans Choose Respect" campaign should extend even farther.
"All of our criminal issues would be solved if people choose respect," she said.
She said that certain sayings and practices in society encourage a pejorative culture.
"Those things permeate our society and promote disrespect not only for women and children but for all people," she said.
Stroh said she's hoping that the state's awareness campaign and increased actions will eventually eliminate abuse altogether.
"I would like to see myself worked out of a job," she said.
Brielle Schaeffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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