PADUCAH, Ky. -
Two local groups are fighting the statistics using empowerment and education to help girls at risk of sexual abuse and assault beat the odds. 25-year-old Gracie Jiu-Jitsu student Lakyn Watkins said, "There's nothing like being a young woman in control and knowing that you can handle yourself."
Imagine watching a high school volleyball game from the 12 girls on the court. Four would have experienced unwanted sexual contact before their 18th birthday. Girls face this type of violence everyday, but many are fighting back.
The latest numbers from The Journal of Adolescent Health show girls aren't alone. Many boys suffer this type of violence, but the statistics are much lower. One in 20 boys will deal with sexual assault or abuse before their 18th birthday. Boys and girls will suffer the most violence between the ages 15 and 17.
"I'm at the bottom. I'm at the bottom of the chain," said Watkins. Even at the lowest level, she said jiu-jitsu gives her the confidence and the skill to break out of a bad situation. "You may not be able to beat anyone up at 4'11, but you do have a chance to escape and not be that one girl."
Senior supervising instructor and black belt Eli Knight said the martial art form was designed to give smaller opponents an advantage. "We think about this as fighting fire with water. We think about overcoming that brute force with intelligence and technique," he said. Three rivers martial arts academy helps create confidence on the mats, while The Purchase Area Sexual Assault Child Advocacy Center, or PASAC, encourages education.
"It really raises awareness of child sexual abuse, and it really gives them the tools to recognize respond and know what do do," said Prevention Education Coordinator Lauren Barks. She said the old saying holds true: knowledge is power. "We can really reach out to anybody who really wants to learn how we can better protect our children," said Barks.
These programs are designed to protect girls and boys who are also learning to protect themselves. "It is empowering," said Watkins.
PASAC offers two main educational programs. One is designed for adults, and the other informs students in the purchase area. Barks said preventing sexual violence is the entire community's responsibility.
Martial arts is something you will always carry with you. If you don't have pepper spray or a gun when in danger, you will always have the protection of your martial arts training.
Prevention is key, but in some instances, it's not enough. Many cases of sexual violence go unreported every year. The stigma is especially strong for boys and men.
For those who do come forward looking for support, there's plenty of it in our area. Aside from education, PASAC provides crisis response, victim advocacy, counseling, and therapy. Their crisis response coordinator, Amanda Harris, said shame should never hold a victim back from reaching out for help. "Men may not believe that they even have been sexually assaulted, because it may be an idea in our culture that men are powerful and should be able to protect themselves."
Last year, PASAC provided more than 4,000 free services for 575 sexual violence victims in the purchase area.