Elizabeth Smart was the keynote speaker for the YWCA's 40th annual Leader Luncheon and Women of Achievement awards ceremony in Rockford on Monday. Hundreds of people attended the event to listen to the survivor speak.
Smart has been in the public eye for nearly twenty years. In 2002, when she was 14 years old, she was kidnapped at knifepoint and abducted for nine months. In that time, she was relentlessly raped and abused. But she survived. Not only that, she thrived, and continues to do so.
Smart finished high school, graduated from college, and became an activist. She went on to write a book, get married, and give birth to three children. She's run a marathon and launched the Elizabeth Smart Foundation; an organization that empowers women and girls with knowledge and skills they may need to protect themselves.
Smart was realistic about the likelihood of people needing those skills to protect themselves:
"Thousands of people are raped every day. Men, women, and children -- they experience forms of sexual violence every day."
Not only does it happen every day, it can happen to a survivor more than once. Smart was sexually assaulted on an airplane in 2019. She said, "I woke up to a man rubbing my inner thigh, and when I looked at him, he didn't apologize or respond. He just looked at me and left his hand on my leg." Smart said she had to pick up his hand and remove it.
She said the assault propelled her into revitalizing her foundation, and implementing a new self defense program called Smart Defense. She said, "I am sick of being a victim. I don't want to be a victim anymore, nor do I want any other person out there to be a victim." She spoke personally, "I have two daughters of my own now, and I never want them to be scared or feel threatened simply because they're women."
Part of Smart's activism is educating survivors of the resources available to them. She credited the YWCA as being "an incredible resource with a wide array of programs that are out there to make a difference."
Smart referred to her story as "extremely personal" but also emphasized that it isn't unique: "If you break down my story element by element, what happened to me is not so different from what happens to thousands of people every single day." She acknowledged her activism is "a dark cause" but also said her message is a hopeful one: "I actually do believe that life is supposed to be happy and that you can find joy and you can find peace in it." She said she believes that happiness is possible for everyone, regardless of their socioeconomic status.
Smart spoke gracefully and elegantly with light moments of humor. She reminded survivors that they are inherently valuable. She said, "There is nothing that another person can do to you that will take away your value. You were born with value and you will die with value, and you should never question that."
Smart said she will continue to advocate for survivors until there is no longer a need. "If there wasn't a need, then I would stop."