On a sunny day last fall, University of Oregon student Yomaira Tarula arrived at Autzen stadium to attend her first football game of the new school year. After five minutes of snaking through the crowd of students at the stadium, a man she didn’t know grabbed her butt.
“I felt angry and unsafe for the rest of the game,” Tarula said. “As much as I wish I would have defended myself, I knew it was safer for me to continue walking.”
The man was never confronted, and the incident became a drop in the well of unreported sexual harassment around the world — an incident that left a woman with another ruined college experience and a public space left unsafe.
This incident is one of many reasons Tarula, UO’s Latinx group MEChA’s political director, gathered with hundreds of people at the EMU amphitheater on April 25 for the 41st annual Take Back the Night march, which seeks to raise awareness about the realities of sexual and domestic violence on campus.
“I see this event as a celebration of life to the survivors that are with us today,” Tarula said. “Every survivor, regardless of their identity, deserves compassion.”
Tarula, together with the UO Muxeres, a subgroup of MEChA, led the march through campus and into downtown Eugene. You could identify the Muxeres by their black and white face paint. Half the face is painted to look like a skull, honoring those who have died from sexual violence. The other half of the face is left untouched, representing those who are still alive — the survivors.
Since Take Back the Night began in Eugene over 40 years ago, community members have come together every April to reclaim city streets that are often deemed unsafe for women after dark.
According to Olivia Rodriguez, sexual violence prevention coordinator with UO’s Women’s Center, the theme of this year’s rally was chosen to bring awareness to a community that is rarely involved in the topic of sexual and domestic violence — people with disabilities.
“Folks with disabilities are twice as likely than the general population to be sexually assaulted,” Rodriguez said. “Not all disabilities are ones you can physically see. This also includes mental, cognitive and developmental. This is a community that needed to be heard.”
Keynote speaker Lydia X. Z. Brown, an author and autistic disability rights activist, took the podium and lamented about the abuses that are unique to those with disabilities and how they intersect with race and gender.
“We are on the campus of a school where I personally know queer, disabled, people of color who've been pushed out, who've been forced to leave, who've been given the message loudly and clearly that they do not belong here,” Brown said. “That's not unique to this campus at all. The letters that those of us who are doing organizing and advocacy work receive are soul-destroying.”
In 2013, Brown was honored by President Barack Obama as a champion of change for disability rights. Since then, Brown has lectured to thousands of students around the country, speaking up for those who may not be able to themselves.
“Disability justice is about not just ending violence, but creating a world in which we can each feel free to love and be loved,” Brown said, “to hold each other accountable and to do so with compassion.”
The march ended at the Atrium Building in downtown Eugene, where a sexual assault survivor speak-out provided a safe space for marchers to share past traumas. Safe Ride, a student-funded group that provides safe alternatives to traveling at night, was available to give students rides back to campus at the end of the night.
Director of UO’s Women’s Center Fatima Pervaiz says that she and her students work diligently to highlight voices that aren’t always heard.
“The disabled community is too frequently left out of essential dialogue about sexual and domestic violence,” Pervaiz said. “Take Back the Night is our opportunity as a campus community to say to victims and survivors of sexual and domestic violence that their experience was valid, we believe them, we support them and it was not their fault.”