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Building a Harm Reduction based Advocacy Movement for Survivors of Domestic and Sexual Violence

Proposal for the Color of Violence 2002 conference

Presenters: Emi Koyama (plus one)
Format: Workshop/discussion


Harm reduction is a philosophy initially developed and adopted by people organizing around HIV/AIDS crisis and other health issues among injection drug users, but its impact and implication for the rest of progressive social change movement is far-reaching. The proposed workshop/discussion focuses on (1) the application of harm reduction model to the advocacy for survivors of domestic and sexual violence, and (2) how it can be used as a platform for women of color to resist negative consequences of institutionalization within the anti-violence movement while (3) meeting the needs of women of color survivors better.

Harm Reduction Coalition defines harm reduction as "a set of practical strategies that reduce negative consequences of drug use," that "meet drug users where they are at." "Harm reduction approach stands in stark contrast to the law enforcement efforts to criminalize and prosecute drug use as well as to the medical community's efforts to pathologize it."

Redefined in terms of survivor advocacy, harm reduction can be a set of practical strategies that reduce negative consequences through making available a larger pool of information and options, while honoring whatever ways survivors cope, including behaviors that have been traditionally labeled as "maladaptive," or "unhealthy," such as alcohol and drug use, self-hurting, sex work, irregular eating and sleeping, and staying in contact with the perpetrator. We view harm reduction as the opposite of paternalism, which unfortunately is rampant within anti-violence agencies that are based on social service model.

In practice, of course, it would require more than just changing how we describe survivors' behaviors. It would require that we acknowledge complex social issues contributing to individual survivors' unique methods of survival, which in turn forces us to be politicized around a multitude of violence and oppression issues rather than just sexism or even just domestic and sexual violence. It would also require that we institutionalize methods by which survivors are regarded as agents of their own survival, and given the real power in shaping the interventions designed to assist them, including offering them leadership opportunities to fight violence within our communities.

While harm reduction is not the answer to everything, we believe that it should be one of the central principles in any anti-violence projects that dare to remain activist in the era of state-funded faith-based "charities." In the proposed session, we will go over the principles of harm reduction approach for survivor advocacy as we view it, and then open up for additional suggestions and discussions on strategies to implement them.