May is Sexual Assault Awareness Month in Canada. Recognizing that there’s still a tendency to blame victims, the “No One Asks For It” campaign asks Canadians to wear purple on May 6 to show support to survivors of sexual violence.
The month is also an opportunity to raise awareness about the devastating impact of such crimes, to better understand its deep cultural and historical roots, to support victims and survivors and to work together to stop the violence.
In Canada, one in three women and one in six men will experience sexual violence in their lifetime. Women are three times more likely to be stalked and four times more likely to be a victim of intimate partner violence. Indigenous women and girls are even more likely to be victims of assault as are other racialized, minority and vulnerable communities.
Sexual assault is defined as any unwanted sexual activity including harassment, threats or physical force.
The COVID-19 crisis has made the issue even more of a concern, as the prevalence of all gender-based violence, including domestic violence and sexual assault, has increased during the pandemic.
Since the vast majority of sexual assault is not reported to police, both police-reported data and self-reported data from social surveys help to establish its scope. Women self-reported 553,000 sexual assaults in 2014, for instance, according to Statistics Canada. Data from 2016 and 2017 show nine of every 10 victims of police-reported sexual assault were female (89 per cent).
In that vein, experts note that survivors need other options for support outside the criminal justice system, as less than five per cent report to the police in Canada.
In this area, the Sexual Assault Support Centre of Waterloo Region (SASCWR) notes May is a time to raise awareness about the issue, its prevalence and the continuing tendency to blame victims. That extends to people who should know better, with the organization saying police officers and judges internalize the concept of victim blaming, as evidenced by the many perpetrators that get off with lighter sentences.
Beyond the horrendous impact on victims, dealing with the aftermath of sexual assault costs Canadians billions of dollars every year. Dealing with sexual assault and related offenses cost the Canadian economy an estimated $4.8 billion in a 2009 study.
The key to ending such violence is a shift in our culture. That’s the impetus for awareness campaigns, efforts to support survivors, breaking the silence around sexual violence and providing education about consent, gender equality and healthy relationships. Those efforts can be seen in the likes of Woolwich Community Services family violence prevention program.
Sexual assault is not caused by monsters lurking in bushes or dark alleys, it is perpetrated by people we know in our own communities – in more than half of sexual assaults, the perpetrator was known to the victim
Every person deserves to live free from the fear of sexual assault, and to live in communities where all public and private spaces, including workplaces, schools, and homes, support their safety. The sexual assault crisis has gone on far too long, and we all have a responsibility to put an end to it. We must strengthen our systems of accountability so that assaulters know their behaviour will not be tolerated; remove the shame and stigma around it so that survivors are empowered to seek support; and speak out against it so that beliefs and attitudes promoting rape culture are removed from our society.
We all have an obligation to do everything we can to raise awareness of sexual assault, support victims and survivors and hold offenders accountable. In the spirit of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, let’s be mindful of the situation, as bringing it out into the light can only help.