Sexual violence against women is a horrific reality for many, and for some victims, overcoming the trauma of it all can seem hopeless. According to Statistics Canada, 91% of sex assault crimes in the country are never reported.
Despite these numbers, some progress has been made recently in the attempt to publicly address these issues. With a nation-wide inquiry into missing Indigenous women beginning in 2016, the New Year promises to, at the very least, bring wide-scale attention to long-time injustices. As we usher in 2016, it is important to recognize how far we’ve come as a society in addressing these issues, but also how much more we have to do going forward.
This year will see the high-profile sex assault trials of Bill Cosby and Jian Ghomeshi come to fruition. Both cases have prompted a much-needed public conversation regarding the difficult task of speaking out against an abuser. Journalist Elizabeth Renzetti summarized some of the reasons for victim silence in a piece for the Globe and Mail, stating:
“In countries where rape is used as an instrument of war and in countries where women march under skyscrapers to “take back the night,” the reasons women stay silent are the same – shame, and stigma, and fear of not being believed, and fear of being hounded, and a desire to just get some place beyond the pain.”
It is important that sex assault victims and victims of violence have an opportunity to share experiences and find a voice. The epidemic of silence associated with sex assault was made viral when, in 2014, Canadian journalists Antonia Zerbisias and Sue Montgomery started the hashtag #BeenRapedNeverReported, ultimately allowing victims to share and unite online. Conversations regarding sexual assault and violence against women are now a regular occurrence on social media, demonstrating the power of outreach and shared experience.
Moving forward in 2016, a national inquiry into over 1,181+ missing and murdered Indigenous women was finally announced by the federal government after years of insistence by concerned groups. Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett will begin the inquiry process by meeting with families of the disappeared and murdered – the first step in offering the hopeful possibility that some families may one day have an answer.
Indigenous women are also particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation and human sex trafficking in Canada. Jennifer Brennan brought to light these issues in a December article for SocialConnectedness.org as she shared a disturbing finding from the Native Women’s Association of Canada revealing an overrepresentation of Indigenous women in crimes of sexual exploitation. In an article for the Huffington Post, Craig and Marc Kielberger explained the devastating link, stating that human sex trafficking “is one of the pieces that make up the complex puzzle of Canada’s more than 1,100 missing and murdered Aboriginal women.”
In 2013, it was reported that Indigenous women are being sold on ships that cross Lake Superior, eventually docking in Minnesota where women are trafficked. Researcher Christine Stark revealed the alarming fact that the sex trade of women on ships between Canada and the U.S. has been happening for “generations.” Bennett’s 2016 inquiry process has already begun and her team is now speaking with family members first-hand and learning more about these heart-breaking disappearances.
As a result of the many years of family turmoil over their missing relatives, the Native Friendship Centres of Saskatchewan has set up a network of support groups, aptly called Project HOPE (Healing Onwards Preserving Everyday), for loved ones of the missing and murdered to gather together. These support groups offer a place to share knowledge and experience and, according to the website, the project works to “meet the demands of families who endure the experience of loss in silence.”
The recent reports of sexual assault in refugee camps call attention to the female experience of war that was examined in another SocialConnectedness.org piece last year. The article discussed the work of Zainab Salbi, founder of Women for Women International, and her belief that there is power in women telling their personal stories of abuse. The inability to share their experiences “can push these women further into isolation” and providing an opportunity to share a single story can, sometimes, be a part of the healing process.
Renowned journalist Mary Jordan, who facilitated several panels during our 2014 Symposium, knows all about giving victims a voice and providing an outlet to share traumatic experience. Jordan, along with her husband Kevin Sullivan, authored the book Hope: A Memoir of Survival in Cleveland, which shared first-hand accounts of Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus who were kidnapped, raped, threatened and imprisoned by a local man. Locked in his house, they suffered unimaginable atrocities for over a decade – all of which is documented in Jordan and Sullivan’s bestselling book.
Hope may seem like the last thing the captive women would have after so many years at the mercy of their captor, but the accounts demonstrate their determination to keep going. One of the victims, Amanda Berry, explained that one of her coping strategies was to recount thoughts of her mother. “When he is doing horrible things to my body, I look at my Mom’s face. I look into her eyes and lose myself in her. And my mom and I get through it.” With this memory, Amanda emphasizes the power of human connection and its critical role in fostering hope
On the subject of suicide, Amanda explained she wouldn’t go through with it because “if I do, he wins.” Throughout their story, there is an underlying message of strength, of willingness to overcome – of deep and profound hope that one day it will all stop.
SocialConnectedness.org reached out again to Mary Jordan to ask her why she felt so strongly that this – a story which details both deeply disturbing events and unrelenting emotional strength – was important to share with the world. She explained,
“Amanda and Gina wanted to tell their story because they have seen how their incredible story of survival and resilience helps others. They are only in their 20s and have a lot to live for. So do other victims of abuse. By banding together and speaking out, women can stand up against violence”.
It seems every day we read about situations involving sexual assault, exploitation and violence against women. The atrocities occur all over the globe and in diverse places: from Indigenous communities, to the suburbs of Cleveland, to refugee camps, to Hollywood. We can be encouraged that greater awareness brought to these issues gives victims cause for hope and strength moving forward.
We, as a human family, must ensure that hope resonates with the victims of sexual violence – a hope that one day their story will be told and a hope that the world will listen and gather our compassion and our collective resources to help, to heal and to prevent violence against women.