Written by Lynnaea Le Drew, BCYC, Support Worker, Howe Sound Women’s Centre Society
This past year, sexual assault rose into the public consciousness. A series of high profile cases, rape on campus and sexual misconduct on Parliament Hill led to unprecedented coverage of sexual assault in the media. But perhaps even more significant, was the shift in public conversation about violence against women.
Leveraging gains made by feminist voices of years past, women pushed back against coverage that dismissed or minimized accounts of sexual violence, or treated allegations as isolated incidents. An outpouring of voices, including powerful protests online, demanded these incidents be seen as a public issue, and recognized as part of a pattern of misogynistic violence that amounts to a social crisis.
Sexual assault is experienced by Canadian women every day at home, at work, at school and on the street. Over half of all Canadian women have experienced at least one incident of sexual or physical violence. Here in the Sea to Sky Corridor, sexual assault occurs at a rate almost 3 times greater than that of urban centres such as Richmond and the North Shore.While these rates of sexual assault are alarming, shocking is our engrained cultural propensity to trivialize, discredit and attack women who give voice to their experience of sexual assault.
The experience of trauma doesn’t end with the violation of the sexual assault. It is prolonged by the societal injustice seen in the stigma, shame and blame women are subjected to when they speak out, the systemic shortcomings of our criminal justice system, and the lack of services and funding available to support women through the healing process.
Barriers to Justice
Sexual assault is the most under-reported violent crime in Canada. Despite efforts to improve justice system responses to sexual assault, the reporting rate is declining. Less than 8% of sexual assaults are reported to police. Only a handful of reported assaults ever result in a conviction: 0.3 percent of perpetrators are convicted while 99.7 percent are never held accountable for their crimes.
Widespread discriminatory attitudes toward sexual violence are a major contributing factor to low reporting rates and the rate of attrition through the criminal justice system. “The way these attitudes play out for women and for criminal justice processing of these cases continues to minimize women’s experiences, exonerate violent men, and distort public understanding of this crime” (Johnson).
In an environment where victims lack voice and credibility, talking about experiences of sexual violence is undertaken with considerable risk. Women who disclose that they have been sexually assaulted are often confronted with skepticism, disbelief, or blame for provoking the attack or not resisting the attack hard enough. Choosing to report and engage in the criminal justice system presents further risk. From reporting to police to (the unlikely event of) conviction in court, women’s credibility is called into question, their accounts attacked and scrutinized. Women are often shamed, risk reprisal and re-traumatisation.
Health Care Response to Sexual Assault in the Corridor
The level of sexual assault services available to women right here in the Sea to Sky Corridor presents another barrier. Currently, women in the Corridor who have been sexually assaulted can receive medical attention for injuries, tests for sexually transmitted infections and treatment for possible pregnancy. However, the medical examination to collect forensic evidence used in court is not available to women in our region’s hospital or health centres. The result is that women must travel to and from Vancouver General Hospital for these examinations, which for some women who live in more remote areas of our community, can mean a drive of up to 4 hours after experiencing extreme trauma.
Lack of resources and access to services is a known barrier to reporting sexual assault and accessing appropriate healthcare. A barrier further exacerbated by a lack of public, cost effective transportation options within the Corridor and linking to Metro Vancouver.
Howe Sound Women’s Centre has been advocating for complete sexual assault care to be made available to women in the Corridor for over 7 years. The backgrounder of the draft sexual assault policy developed by Vancouver Coastal Health Authority (VCHA) in 2010 identified ways to improve the level of service in the Corridor. Identified solutions included offering medical forensic examinations by training Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners at Squamish General Hospital, Whistler Health Care Centre and Pemberton Health Centre or training a team of Mobile Nurse Practitioners who could travel to each facility.
In 2011, at the conference “For Her Own Good,” representatives of the Sea to Sky Women’s Safety Network called on VCHA to implement one of the identified solutions. They stated “adoption and promotion of enhanced medical service response to sexual assault in our region, including forensic evidence collection, will result in more victims coming forward for medical assistance. It is believed the same victims will be more willing to participate in the justice system and will go further through their own continuum of care.” To date, there has been no change with regards to medical forensic examinations for survivors of sexual assault in the Sea to Sky Corridor.
What You Can Do
The reality is, women continue to be held responsible for the crimes committed against them. This won’t be fixed overnight. However, substantial headway made in 2014 provides hope that significant gains will be made in the New Year towards ending violence against women. Gains made possible by more men and women engaging in violence prevention, committed to speaking out against systems that fail women, and prevalent attitudes, norms and behaviours that condone, excuse and encourage sexual violence.
If someone you know has been sexually assaulted
If someone you know discloses that she has been sexually assaulted, it is critical that you let her know that you believe her. This is the first step in helping her begin to heal. Let her know that she is not alone. Surviving a sexual assault can be an isolating and lonely experience, and this information can help alleviate that. Support any decision that she makes. Whether she chooses to go to the police or not, or go to a sexual assault centre or emergency room or not, it is important that she feels that she has made the right decision for her, without judgement from others. Sexual assault can leave a women feeling out of control and powerless, and allowing her to make the final decisions regarding her care helps to restore some sense of power once again.
Click here for more information from the Sea to Sky Women’s Safety Network Sexual Assault Response Pamphlet.
The Violence Against Women Survey, Statistics Canada, 1993. Available: http://www23.statcan.gc.ca/imdb/p2SV.pl?Function=getSurvey&SDDS=3896&Item_Id=1712
British Columbia Policing Jurisdiction Crime Trends 2000-2009, Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General, 2010.
Assessing Violence Against Women: A Statistical Profile, Status of Women, 2002. Available: www.gnb.ca/0037/report/Statusofwomen-e.pdf
Limits of a Criminal Justice Response: Trends in Police and Court Processing of Sexual Assault, Johnson, H., 2012. Available: www.ywcacanada.ca/data/research_docs/00000308.pdf
Virtually Without Service: Systemic Perils for Survivors of Sexual Assault in the Sea to Sky Corridor, Sea to Sky Women’s Safety Network, 2011. Available: http://phsa.mediasite.com/mediasite/Catalog/Full/c3f0063fa5c74ab8963b4e01fe21cf8c21