PITTSFIELD -- A garden of 233 flags will sprout in Park Square today -- each one representing a victim of sexual assault who was offered services last year by the Elizabeth Freeman Center.
The demonstration, which will run from 4 to 6 p.m., and two others -- in Great Barrington on April 17 and North Adams on April 24 -- are in honor of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, a nationally recognized attempt to educate communities about the realities of sexual violence.
The aim of the demonstrations is to bring awareness to Berkshire County residents of the issue of sexual violence, which the Center for Disease Control estimates will affect one in two women and one in five men in their lifetimes.
"Anyone is welcome to show up," said Becca Bradburd, director of operations at the center. "We'll have a lot of extra signs."
The Elizabeth Freeman Center, based in Pittsfield, helped a total of 3,107 victims of domestic violence or sexual assault in Berkshire County last year. It offers a variety of free services, from meeting with victims at the hospital to advocacy in the court system.
Another goal of the rallies and providing statistics on the pervasiveness of sexual assault, Bradburd said, is to remind victims "that they are not alone."
"People don't talk about it when their sexually assaulted because they feel ashamed," she said. "The shame should lay with the perpetrator."
Because of that shame, sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes, Bradburd said.
It's difficult to determine if sexual assault is more pervasive in Berkshire County than other areas, she said, because it's so underreported and defined differently by various agencies. However, Berkshire County does have a rate of restraining orders 37 percent higher than the state average. Additionally, the number of reported forcible rapes in Pittsfield was more than twice the state average in Pittsfield and 1.9 times the state average in North Adams in 2010.
These issues can at times be especially acute in North County, said Liz Langille, an Elizabeth Freeman Center "SAFEPLAN" advocate for victims in Northern Berkshire District Court. She said social issues such as poverty play a larger role than in South County.
"Northern Berkshire is geographically isolated," Langille said. "It can be difficult to get services."
Those concerns have become more acute since the recent closure of North Adams Regional Hospital and the Greylock Pavilion mental health ward before it, Langille said.
The Elizabeth Freeman Center worked directly with hospital staff, she said. There are also concerns about victim transportation to Pittsfield. Access to a hospital also is important for victims after they've been abused, Langille said, so records of their injuries can be brought to court.
Langille handles about 350 to 375 restraining orders in Northern Berkshire District Court every year, a number that has remained consistent for about a decade.
For that number to change, Langille said, there has to be a "communitywide" awareness of the problem.
"It's a community issue," she said.
If you go ...
n Today: Demonstration at Park Square, Pittsfield; 4 to 6 p.m.
n April 17: Demonstration across from Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, Great Barrington; 4 to 6 p.m.
n April 24: Demonstration: City Hall, North Adams; 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.
n April 24: Discussion, "Facing Shame: Straight Talk on Child Sexual Abuse," a discussion with Gabrielle Senza and Elizabeth Freeman Center Director of Clinical Services Jean Clarke-Mitchell; First Congregational Church, Great Barrington, 7 p.m.
By the numbers ...
A look at sexual violence in Berkshire County and across the state:
n 233: The number of sexual assault victims assisted by the Elizabeth Freeman Center in 2013.
n 220: The number of sexual assault victims assisted by the Elizabeth Freeman Center in 2012.
n The number of forcible rapes reported in Pittsfield in 2010 was twice the state average.
n The number of forcible rapes reported in North Adams in 2010 was 1.9 times the state average in 2010.
n The Berkshire County rate of restraining orders is 37 percent more than the state average.
Source: Uniform Crime Reporting data