On the global stage, Canada is leading the way to end sexual and gender-based violence. But we’re failing at home.
Canada was pivotal in establishing a United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, leads an annual resolution on violence against women at the United Nations Human Rights Council and, just last week, was instrumental in negotiating agreed conclusions at the UN Commission on the Status of Women that call on countries to adopt comprehensive, gender-sensitive preventive, protective and prosecutorial measures, especially measures that create safe environments that empower survivors to report incidences without fear of being re-victimized.
Canada is becoming the global leader Trudeau has promised, stepping up to the plate by safeguarding language on sexual and reproductive rights, sexual orientation and gender identity, and comprehensive sexuality education – all of which are critical when it comes to addressing sexual and gender-based violence.
Canada’s efforts to advance international policy on the issue have contributed to an international legal framework that requires governments around the world to be active in preventing violence against women and providing effective remedies for survivors.
In no small part, through its global engagement, Canada is paving the way for countries to develop laws, policies and programs that challenge the idea that violence against women is inevitable. Because of efforts led by Canada, countries around the world are creating laws, policies and programs that protect a woman’s right to be free from violence, that hold perpetrators accountable and that ensure survivors of violence are not subjected to more harm when seeking justice.
All that to say, at the international level, we’re seeing real progress. But the reality at home is much different. That same framework that is working to advance rights and prevent violence globally is not being applied in Canada.
Last Thursday, when former CBC celebrity Jian Ghomeshi was found not guilty on one count of overcoming resistance to sexual assault by choking and four counts of sexual assault, the verdict, and much of the media coverage that came after it, centered around the idea that the accusers were inconsistent at best, and maliciously deceptive at worst.
What the media – and many Canadians – fail to understand is that when the abuser is someone you know, sexual violence becomes especially complicated. Complex personal and emotional relationships often make cutting ties difficult, undesirable, even dangerous. It’s not uncommon for survivors to remain in contact with their abusers. And the fact is, a woman is much more likely to face violence at home by her partner or someone she knows.
Still, Canada’s court system relies on an outdated understanding of sexual violence as an experience faced by a “perfect victim” at the hands of a “bad stranger.”
Survivors of sexual violence who come forward in Canada are often re-traumatized by a criminal justice system that forces victims to relive their experience through an aggressive cross-examination process that is judged by myths of what survivors of sexual assault and violence should “look and act like.”
The likelihood of being re-traumatized in court and the low conviction rate for sexual assault mean that Canada is failing to properly address sexual and gender-based violence and is actively preventing survivors from coming forward.
Canada – a global leader on ending violence against women – needs to take stock of international best practice and strengthen the criminal justice system in Canada. A system that has clearly demonstrated its inability to meaningfully address the needs of survivors.
Canada needs to apply the same legal and policy framework developed on the global stage, at home.
In doing so, Canada could take meaningful steps recognizing that shame, stigma and fear of being re-victimized often prevent survivors from reporting or seeking justice. It could work to create an enabling environment where women and girls can easily report incidents of violence, ensuring access to effective remedies and legal assistance without discrimination. It could provide safe and appropriate complaint channels, adopting an approach that establishes (where appropriate) specialized courts that protect confidentiality and prevent stigma, re-victimazation or further harm to the victim.
There is a lot Canada can do. Implementing measures we’re already committed to as a country will go a long way.