Just how powerful can a white balloon be? Let me tell you the story of our regional campaign in which a white balloon has become a rallying point for the community.

The association between white balloons and child sexual abuse is one used internationally and was brought to Australia by Hetty Johnson with “White Balloon Day” as an awareness raiser. The day has now received funding for Bravehearts to take nationwide — an important point for child sexual abuse issues and the national agenda.

In our area of north-east Victoria and southern NSW, 10 years of community engagement has evolved into something extraordinary  a region-wide activity that brings communities together in local networks united in wanting to prevent abuse, to support those affected, and to heal the damage that is caused.

Fly a White Balloon” works through volunteers, local groups and networks, uniting the community around “Breaking the Silence on Child Sexual Abuse: Keeping Kids Safe in Our Community”. Child Protection Week is a rallying point, creating awareness, increasing understanding and engaging the community in partnerships that bring together everyone you can think of — kinder, primary and high school, TAFE, health agencies, service clubs, businesses, sports clubs, school bands, councils, police, jails, child protection and hundreds of hours of volunteer labour — 31 communities doing their own thing in their own way.

We work from the ground up, using local knowledge and priorities, with no set format, and communities work out what they want to do and what works for them. This community based co-ordination, ownership and dedicated volunteers results in amazing projects:

  • School students run things as a health project
  • Service clubs deliver information to every house in one town
  • People make banners, posters, art, DVDs, bands, rap songs and so the list goes on.

These partnerships lead to ongoing projects, university-based evaluation, a community attitudes survey, research into disclosure and responses, information for young people and friends, and work on sexually inappropriate behaviours by children under 10.

Given the regional breadth and depth of what we do, and without making any comment on the recent injunction in Wangaratta, as reported by Crikey on Monday, the impacts have been enormous.

The meaning of these events to local people, including survivors and their families, and the significance as a major local statement that the community cares, means the legalities of the past few weeks have had a very personal impact on many  in and outside Wangaratta. Can we talk about this, or can we not? How are we to talk about this? Is this our day, can we do it, who controls it and decides what we can do? Above all, for survivors — is it safe to talk about these issues — and if so where and when?

Locally, it prevented all activity in the Wangaratta area, and the volunteers who had spent six months organising the day had three days to unorganise it all — 120 supporting businesses, services agencies, churches and schools and 30 volunteers, all needed a visit or call and explanation of what was happening and why.

Initial reactions included anger, sadness and disappointment at the loss of their day, but a unanimous commitment not to do anything that might cause any upset to the case at court.

There were regional impacts, too, on media reporting, meaning that none of the community activity could be publicised either — silent except for local media. All the newspapers, TV and radio stations who have given us almost blanket coverage and community education in recent years spent the week talking to lawyers about what they weren’t allowed to do.

Another slightly bizarre regional angle, as a community development activity that uses email networks extensively, was how to let people we didn’t know, doing things we didn’t know about, not to do it — without using the media! The only thing we could do was to email these networks, asking them to tell anyone they had sent it on to —  not to do anything in Wangaratta. Everyone was so helpful that apparently some people got the email six times. We got many replies, some outraged, some wondering if it was a hoax.

Now the injunction has been lifted, the community is holding their “Fly a White Balloon” day on Friday October 9, with plans for 1500 balloons, art shows, school activities and so on. But the story isn’t over yet — many locals are confused, wondering when, where and how they will be able to hold their events in the future without legal ramifications.

Maybe the lesson from all of this is that child sexual abuse issues are difficult, are hard to talk about and hotly debated — after all if this was easy we would have solved it years ago.

It isn’t easy — the international evidence shows that to create sustainable change we need action at many levels, but above all in primary on-the-ground prevention —  communities working together on local issues with local priorities to change local attitudes.

Our volunteer-driven and largely unfunded action on “Fly a White Balloon” has been doing this for 10 years, but we are very unsure about how and where we will be able to the future.

Ilena Young is a Wangaratta resident.