The Big Picture – Responding to Sexual Violence in Ontario

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Lenore from SACHA recently presented to the Ontario government’s Select Committee on Sexual Violence and Harassment. Our presentation was about the work that sexual assault centres in Ontario are doing to support survivors and prevent violence and we shared our recommendations for change.

May is Sexual Violence Prevention Month.

Thank you for the opportunity to address the Committee today and share our input. I’d like to start by briefly sharing some information about the organization I am representing today, the Sexual Assault Centre (Hamilton and Area) – which is celebrating our 40th anniversary this year.

SACHA provides support to adult women and men (16 years of age and older), who have experienced childhood and/or adult sexual violence at any point in their lives. This includes rape, incest, sexual abuse and harassment.

Last year:

The issue of sexual violence, including harassment, is extremely complex. Today, I would like to focus on 3 key points:

  1. Ensuring that survivors have quick access to high quality, specialized trauma supports.
  2. Recognizing the importance of advocacy and system navigation in supporting survivors and ending victim-blaming.
  3. Shifting the focus away from reporting issues and a criminal response to ensuring that victims are appropriately supported and sexual violence is ultimately prevented.

1. Ensuring that survivors have access to high quality, specialized trauma supports.

We are thrilled with the newly released Ontario-wide Sexual Violence Action Plan, It’s Never Okay: An Action Plan to Stop Sexual Violence and Harassment and are pleased that the important role of community based Sexual Assault Centres is recognized.

As I mentioned in my brief intro Sexual Assault Centres are the community specialists for supporting any and all adult survivors. Working with victims of sexual violence and offering prevention education is our only focus –it’s what we do 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

While we need to ensure that all professionals can provide support for survivors, sexual assault/rape crisis centres house tremendous expertise.

To use a medical analogy: We are the surgeons or specialists working with “general practitioners” in our communities. We have the experience and expertise that comes from journeying with survivors in their healing and in offering trauma counselling, prevention education and outreach services.

Community-based Sexual Assault Centres place the voices of survivors front and centre in our work; work that must be recognized and supported.

2. It is essential that this committee understands the importance of advocacy and system navigation in supporting survivors and ending rape culture.

SACHA staff and volunteers spend a great deal of time helping survivors navigate complex systems and services. For example: hospitals; family, criminal and immigration courts; police services; housing services; social welfare supports such as the Ontario Disability Support Plan; etc.

We work to ensure that these institutions respond appropriately to individual survivors. We also spend countless hours advocating and fighting for improvements to broader systems to ensure that they better respond to all survivors.

For example we:

  • lobby for systemic policy changes and improvements to the criminal court process (including how police services respond to survivors);
  • loudly speak out against victim-blaming and the pervasiveness of rape culture in our communities – attitudes that silence survivors and keep sexual violence hidden;
  • work with universities and colleges so that they appropriately address and prevent sexual violence on campuses;
  • work with local city planners to ensure that disaster planning anticipates and responds to the spike in sexual and domestic violence that occur after a disaster.

These are just a few examples of the systemic change that we work on within the province and beyond. What is key to note – is that community-based Sexual Assault Centres are not part of the systems that we are critiquing. This is extremely important.

We often hear from our community partners who work within large institutions and legal systems that they are unable to take action or speak out.

The independence of community-based Sexual Assault Centres ensures that the voices of survivors and the many struggles they face within our well-meaning systems, are heard and that action is taken to correct unjust practices, policies and laws.

3) Finally, in order to really address sexual violence, we must shift the focus away from reporting and a criminal response to ensuring that victims are supported and sexual violence is ultimately prevented.

Statistics tell us that two out of three Canadian women have experienced sexual assault but approximately 80-90% of these survivors do not access the criminal justice system; this despite vast government resources directed towards the criminal court process.

In reality, the majority of sexual assault cases are simply not reported at all and only a small minority of those initially charged with sexual assault, actually see convictions. YWCA Canada created a fabulous info graphic that details this serious problem:  o-SEXUAL-ASSAULT-CANADA-570 As a society, we are overwhelmingly fixated on increasing sexual assault reporting and we use a survivor’s willingness, or lack thereof, to report sexual violence as a means to measure the truth of her claim. But a criminal court response won’t necessarily increase support to victims.

Our current criminal system is rife with problems that do not make reporting an automatically useful or supportive method for dealing with sexual violence.

It is not enough to say to women “go and tell your story”, to a system, which will simply function to challenge, disbelieve or scrutinize her. Yes, women can and ought to feel they have the right to report and that the system will appropriately respond: but they also need information, support, counselling — and other alternatives to reporting.

As a province, we must ensure that these alternatives have the required resources to support survivors. Our emphasis and energies should be directed to these responses – not solely on reporting to police. In addition, prevention education and public discussion on sexual violence must be prioritized.

Public education promotes a focus on prevention of sexual violence as opposed to catching and imprisoning offenders. We believe that education on sexual violence goes a long way towards the prevention of this serious social issue. Public education and training offers:

  • innovative ways to challenge sexual violence myths and victim-blaming;
  • creates skill building opportunities for professional so that they can appropriately respond to survivors; and
  • delivers programs for bystanders to assist them in recognizing and responding to sexual violence.

Today, many organizations such as Sexual Assault Centres, the Centre for Research on Violence and the Learning Network are doing innovative work on training professionals and the public on how to better understand and respectfully respond to sexual assault disclosures without repeating victim-blaming rhetoric.

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