Today, West Coast LEAF released a report about why women often do not report sexual assault through the criminal justice system – in women’s own voices.
We Are Here: Women’s Experiences of the Barriers to Reporting Sexual Assault centres women’s experiences of the devastating impacts of sexual assault, which are all too often deepened by the legal system’s inadequate responses.
Changes in the justice system and in society are urgently needed to offer viable paths to justice for all survivors of sexual assault in Canada—almost 90% of whom are women. Indigenous women are nearly three times more likely to be sexually assaulted than non-Indigenous women. Only about 5% of sexual assaults are reported to police, and only 11% of the cases that are reported eventually lead to a conviction. Sexual assault is a vastly under-reported crime in Canada.
We live in a culture that misplaces blame for sexual assault at the feet of those who have been assaulted. Many women told us that concerns about being blamed, stereotyped, or automatically disbelieved dissuaded them from reporting sexual assault.
The risk of encountering such attitudes—in the justice system, as in the rest of society—is particularly acute for the most marginalized survivors, including those who are Indigenous, are racialized, have disabilities, or do sex work. The potential for re-traumatization through the justice system is very real, particularly when discrimination and victim-blaming come into play.
“Had I known that I would have been heard, trusted, believed, I could have made that effort just to protect other women. Because that’s at the end of the day all I care about. It’s not about some sense of justice for me, like he what he did and […] there’s nothing that’s undoing that, but it’s stopping it from happening again.” — Interview 4
The criminal justice system is only one of many necessary responses to the problem of sexual assault, including Indigenous healing opportunities, housing, counselling services, and health care.
For some survivors, engaging with the legal system is not part of their path to healing and justice. For other survivors, seeking legal recourse is hugely important, yet they may find that overwhelming obstacles stand in the way. Other survivors who shared their stories talked about the need for widespread public education about consent.
The report highlights the potential for change. We hope readers will be inspired to challenge the victim-blaming assumptions that are so prevalent in our culture, and that often surface in the justice system, too. Changes in the justice system often follow shifts in cultural values.
This report is one of the outcomes of a partnership between West Coast LEAF and the YWCA Metro Vancouver. Staff at the YWCA recruited and interviewed a number of sexual assault survivors who generously and anonymously shared their experiences and insights regarding the decision of whether or not to report to police. Eighteen of those women’s experiences are highlighted in the report.
We are deeply grateful to the women who generously shared their experiences and insights with us. Their voices are the substance and heart of this report.
Note: This report is about Canadian state law. We recognize the Indigenous legal traditions that have been on these lands for many thousands of years and we acknowledge the colonial history and continuing impacts of the Canadian legal system on Indigenous peoples.
We are grateful for the generous financial support of Status of Women Canada and the Notory Foundation of BC.