Dee Babcock

(WOMENENEWS)–As a rural outreach coordinator in Alaska, Amy Maio has seen the effects of geography and isolation on women who have been sexually assaulted.

Maio, who works at Aiding Women in Abuse and Rape Emergencies, or AWARE, in Juneau, recently counseled a woman whose boyfriend had raped her five-year-old daughter. The woman, who had moved three years before to a village only reachable by small plane, had believed her new family and community would protect and support her.

She was wrong.

“She found that her boyfriend’s entire family was supporting him,” said Maio. “They either didn’t believe she was telling the truth, or they didn’t feel what he had done was such a bad thing.”

Gossip about the assault spread through the community, and when word spread that the woman had fled to Juneau for help, she decided she couldn’t return to her village. She returned to her own family, far from Alaska.

Counterpoint to Federal Statistics

An April report by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center in Enola, Penn., which is funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, found that sexual assault outside cities and suburbs is possibly more prevalent but less likely to be reported, contrary to federal statistics showing higher assault rates in urban areas.

The report, “Unspoken Crimes: Sexual Assault in Rural America,” studied the work of several crime researchers and interviewed sexual-assault counselors across the country “to cast new light on the deep-seated social codes and the often isolated and insulated rural conditions that have made rural populations neither easy to serve or easy to reach.”

In many rural areas, if a woman parks her car at a rape-crisis center or sheriff’s office, word can quickly spread through the community, according to the report. The judge, the sheriff, the doctor at the emergency room may all know the assailant or the victim.

And, the report says, rural areas often have “unwritten cultural rules that dictate secrecy of personal problems . . . One underlying value in many rural communities stresses the importance of family reputation over personal justice and, sometimes, over personal safety.”

Karen Baker

Karen Baker, project director at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, said the report’s results didn’t surprise her. “It confirmed what we had already been hearing anecdotally,” she said.

In some remote areas, the report concluded, attitudes toward sexual assault even “may appear relatively accepting.”

Such factors resulted in lower reporting rates, which curb funding levels, which in turn hobble a crisis center’s ability to provide services, according to the report.

Alaska’s Rape Rates Double the National Average

While rural areas overall may have lower reporting rates, Alaska’s rates are more than double the U.S. average.

Alaska, where 90 percent of the state cannot be reached by a road system, in 1999 reported 83.5 rapes per 100,000 females compared to a U.S. average of 32.7 per 100,000 females, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports.

The rates for Anchorage (62.8 per 100,000 females), where more than half the state’s population dwells, compared to the state rate (83.5 per 100,000 females) suggest that rural areas disproportionately shoulder the burden of higher rates of rape, according to the report. And data from the Alaska State Troopers suggest rural areas have the highest rates of sexual assault.

Alaska’s rates may be higher than the norm for rural areas, but even those statistics don’t reflect the complete picture, Maio said.

“A lot of the women just choose not to go forward with reporting it, just because the community is so small,” said Maio, the Juneau counselor who must take a 20-minute ride on a small prop plane to reach the closest community she serves and a 40-minute flight on Alaska Airlines to reach the most far flung. “They don’t want to ostracize themselves.”

Numerous Obstacles to Reporting Assaults

While Alaska has the highest rate of rapes, problems reporting sexual assault aren’t limited to the far reaches of that state. Across the landscape of America, women far removed from urban areas experienced distinctive obstacles when dealing with and reporting sexual assault, according to the report.

In Greenville, Miss., Our House Inc., a domestic-violence shelter recently became the only rape-crisis center in an eight-county area, said Felecia Thomas, public-awareness coordinator for the shelter.

In Meridian, Miss., the town’s rape crisis center, Wesley House Community Center Inc., has struggled 15 years for acceptance as a resource in the community, said Nell Grissom, the center’s executive director. “When I first started this program, it was completely rejected,” said Nell Grissom, the center’s director. “It’s getting so it’s accepted, but we have a long way to go.”

She added, “Some people will always be in disbelief. It’s hurtful.”

And in Hannibal, Mo., Ellen Reed, the director of AVENUES, a crisis center that covers seven counties, said it’s tough to discuss sexual violence in socially conservative communities where traditional gender roles are still the norm.

“We are certainly reaching more survivors than we ever have,” said Reed, whose organization has four satellite shelters in northeast Missouri. “But it’s tricky. It’s difficult talking about these issues in areas that are rural and closed and very resistant to anybody that might challenge the status quo.”

“A lot of that has to do with a real resistance on the part of law enforcement, prosecution and social services to be open enough to talk about sexual violence to grasp the dynamics that are happening,” Reed said. “If we are going to talk about the true dynamics of sexual issues, the gender issues, the gender oppression behind that, the conservative community is really going to backlash against that.”

Law Enforcement Plays Crucial Role

The report concludes that relationships with law enforcement are vitally important in rural areas. Small police and sheriff’s agencies tend to have more political influence and fewer financial resources, both factors that can be obstacles in addressing sexual assault.

Mira Frosolono-Gray, project manager for the Rural Sexual Assault Curriculum Development Project at the University of Arkansas’ Criminal Justice Institute in Little Rock, said rural areas often lack a “large tax base there or foundations or corporations to contribute to a police department, so they have a lack of resources.”

“Many don’t even have a training budget,” said Frosolono-Gray, whose program uses federal grants to train rural law enforcement to handle victim trauma and collecting evidence.

Law-enforcement officers seem generally receptive to the training, she said, sometimes leaving with plans to put new sexual-assault policies into effect.

By building relationships with law-enforcement agencies, as well as working with other community agencies, churches and schools, rural advocates may reach more women who have been assaulted and gain a more adequate picture of the extent of the problem.

Rural women need more resources to deal with sexual assault, Reed concluded.

“The type of pressure that social structures in rural areas put on women and children . . . they simply do not have the social freedom, the economic freedom to get services,” she said. “They shouldn’t have to be dependent on more populated areas. We need to be reaching out to them.”

Karen Shugart is a journalist in Georgia.

For more information:

National Sexual Violence Resource Center–
“Unspoken Crimes:Sexual Assault in Rural America”
(Adobe PDF format):

Federal Bureau of Investigation–Uniform Crime Reports:

Rural Womyn Zone: