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Bay Area Women Against Rape celebrates 30 years

By Jeffrey Obser Daily Planet Staff
Friday September 28, 2001

Bay Area Women Against Rape, an Oakland-based nonprofit that helps sexual assault victims navigate an often intimidating medical and law-enforcement process, will mark its 30th anniversary Friday evening with a reception at the Waterfront Hotel on Jack London Square. 

BAWAR was founded in 1971 after a young student was raped in a Berkeley High School stairwell. Executive director Marcia Blackstock, who joined the organization 23 years ago, said it was the first of its kind in the country. 

“Her mother and a few other women got together, sat around the kitchen table, and decided something had to happen,” Blackstock said. “After her assault, the treatment she received from hospital and law enforcement was pretty bad. Not intentionally bad, but there was nothing set in place for anybody to deal with sexual assault survivors.” 

The initial goals, she said, were to provide counseling to sexual assault survivors and to accompany them through the law enforcement and medical system. A 24-hour hotline was set up, and volunteers began counseling victims in person and accompanying them to hospitals, police interviews, and court. 

BAWAR’s eight paid staff and 50 volunteers now train police, clergy, therapists, and others all over Alameda County in dealing with victims sensitively. Some also work in the state prison system. 

“We do what we call “victim impact” workshops, trying to help offenders understand that there are long-term consequences to their actions,” said Ilana Gerjuoy, a volunteer for almost two years. 

BAWAR and similar organizations around the state have been instrumental in coaxing the state government to establish clear police and medical protocols. 

“I’ve worked with them for over 25 years. I think they’re a good outfit and they work well with the police department,” said Sergeant Kay Lantow, who supervises the Berkeley Police Department’s sex crimes detail and domestic violence prevention unit. “And probably they had at least some input in many of the changes as to how cases come together, are investigated, and how the county handles those things.” 

Five years ago, Lantow said, the state penal code was amended to require police to notify all sexual assault victims of their right to be accompanied by an advocate at all stages of their search for justice and medical care. Today, the Berkeley Police Department calls BAWAR for each of the 35 to 50 rapes reported annually in the city. 

“There’s a lot of progress that has been made,” said Blackstock. “I see amazing progress, but I have to couch that with a Bay Area and particularly Alameda County focus, because I think Alameda is pretty much ahead of the state in treatment of sexual assault survivors.” 

“When I go to statewide meetings” of rape-crisis advocates, said Gerjuoy, “I continue to hear rape crisis centers are doing battle with their law enforcement agencies.” 

Gerjuoy said she got involved because of a “general lack of understanding and competence” among those an assault victim must contact for help.  

“I’ve also opened up my view that any kind of anti-oppression work is linked, and men are also very valued clients,” she said. “Straight men also can be assaulted. The problem of sexual assault is really everyone’s problem. It’s not confined to women or to gay men.” 

The reward, she said, is to offer “crucial” human contact during the aftermath of a traumatic event. 

“Every time I talk to someone on the hotline or see someone in the hospital, I see the transformation they go through from the beginning to the end of the contact,” said Gerjuoy. “In the beginning they’re looking really scared and alone, then in the end when they see that they have allies and advocates. You can just see a difference in their demeanor when they realize they’re not alone in this. They say, I know I can get through the night now.” 

BAWAR’s anniversary reception, for which the group is asking $25 per person, is set for 8 p.m. to midnight at the Waterfront Hotel at Jack London Square. For information, call 430-1298 

BAYWAR’s hotline for victims of sexual assault is 834-7273.