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People Are Signing A Petition To Stop A Rapist Speaking At A Women's Festival

Exclusive: Southbank Centre's artistic director, Jude Kelly, told BuzzFeed News that due to the sensitivity of this issue "we are taking the time to listen to different viewpoints before deciding the most appropriate way forward".

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The WOW festival, which describes itself as a celebration of women and girls, takes place every year in March at the Southbank Centre in London.

This year the festival is expected to hold an event called "South of Forgiveness", which involves a rape survivor inviting the perpetrator onstage to discuss the impact of his actions.

During the TED Talk, Stranger, who is Australian, explains how back in 1996, when he was 18 years old, he travelled to Iceland as part of an international exchange programme, which is where he met Elva who was 16 at the time.

The pair were dating, but Stranger says that he broke up with Elva a few days after he raped her. Sixteen years later Elva sent him a letter and asked to meet up in person. "I mustered the courage to propose a wild idea: that we'd meet up in person and face our past once and for all," she said.

The pair have also released a book this year, which is described as "an unprecedented collaboration between a survivor and a perpetrator". They explore "the darkest moment of their lives" and find hope "even in the most wounded of places".

Prepping for the release of our TED talk later today, and putting some finishing touches to https://t.co/0q9iY2LYbX… https://t.co/TQ8CXWrowN

The petition has reached almost 1,000 signatures since it was launched two days ago. It lists several concerns with the event, including over the idea that rapists should be applauded for admitting to a sexual assault they have committed.

Amira Elwakil, who started the petition, said she was concerned that it might encourage rapists to contact survivors, and that this could severely disrupt their process of healing.

Jan Macleod, a spokesperson for voluntary feminist organisation the Women's Support Project, told BuzzFeed News she shares the worry that this particular talk being held at an event for women and girls could be seen as normalising rape.

She also said that it might make some women attending the festival feel uncomfortable or unsafe.

She told BuzzFeed News that it's important that survivors of rape and sexual violence are the primary voice in the dialogue around these issues.

"We do not know the context around this particular talk at WOW," she said. "But, whether staging this will help the cause of those who have experienced sexual violence is highly questionable."

Amara also said that the majority of survivors of rape and sexual assault feel voiceless, and often feel unable to report it to the police. "Considering this, a rapist being given a stage at a prominent women's festival is rather ironic," she said.

Amara said that women all over the world are encouraged to forgive perpetrators in an effort to save their attackers from facing the criminal justice system, to protect family honour, and to keep their community together.

"While they forgive their rapist for the sake of appeasing others, and because it's too dangerous not to forgive their rapist, they often subject themselves to huge psychological damage by silencing their own feelings," she said.

"Therefore, staging an event combining sexual violence and 'forgiveness' is undoubtedly damaging."

She added: "Not only does it seem to promote the idea that survivors should forgive their rapist, but it fails to consider the dangerous and difficult circumstances many women around the world find themselves in."

Southbank Centre's artistic director, Jude Kelly, told BuzzFeed News: "Rape is one of the most complex and difficult issues that all societies around the world struggle to deal with, every day. Conversations about blame are mostly focused around the survivor not the perpetrator.

"We programmed this talk for one woman to share her journey of coming to terms with the devastating impact of her rape and her decision to invite her perpetrator to take full responsibility for his actions.

"As demonstrated by the strength of feedback around this talk, the sensitivity of this issue hugely divides opinion and we are taking the time to listen to different viewpoints before deciding the most appropriate way forward."

In a statement to BuzzFeed News, representatives for Elva and Stranger said they believed in their right to to "write and publish their story, and to discuss its implications, its difficulties and its consequences in public."

"Thordis and Tom are very clear that their story is only theirs; they in no way wish to present their lives as typical or to prescribe any recommended response to rape. Nor do they wish to cause renewed pain in those who have suffered. Others will have their own experience of rape and its aftermath," the statement said.

"Tom Stranger is a perpetrator of rape. He has acknowledged as much publicly, and seeks to avoid inappropriate praise for his admission of guilt. He believes taking responsibility for committing any form sexual violence should be viewed as essential rather than praise-worthy, whilst going to lengths to avoid suggesting that perpetrators should make contact with any individuals they have subjected to sexual violence. He will be donating a proportion of the proceeds from the project to charity."

Fiona Rutherford is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

Contact Fiona Rutherford at fiona.rutherford@buzzfeed.com.

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