Justice for Sexual Assault Survivors

Most women remain silent. For every 1,000 sexual assaults, only 33 are reported, 12 result in charges, only 6 are prosecuted and only 3 lead to a conviction. In other words, there are largely no consequences for the men who continue to sexually assault women.

Many have fought to change this terrifying reality. One of this year’s YWCA Toronto Women of Distinction, Elizabeth Shilton, has been at the fore. She has argued before the Supreme Court to uphold the rape shield law and fought to prevent the disclosure of survivor’s counselling records. Our newest
Young Women of Distinction, Tessa Hill and Lia Valente, have helped change the dialogue with their
popular on-line petition “We Give Consent.” This campaign changed Ontario’s Health and Physical Education curriculum – it now includes content on sexual consent and healthy relationships. And Ontario’s It’s Never Okay Action Plan is a bold step forward.

But the Ghomeshi trial is a reminder that we have much farther to go.

I could relate when Lucy DeCoutere, a complainant in the Ghomeshi case, said: “I thought you had to be beaten to pieces and raped. I didn’t know this was illegal.” Consent is our law, but its meaning is still not widely understood. There continues to be a focus on “what did she do, wear, say or act like?” Rather than “what is consent and why do some men sexually assault women?” Public education is desperately needed.

I have learned that sexual assault trials are unique. There is no other type of legal battle where a woman’s (the complainant’s) credibility and reputation is put on trial as much or more than the defendant’s. Also unique is cross-examination where questioning by the defence may be grounded in stereotypes about how women should respond to sexual assault. The focus is on “what she was wearing – or drinking – or doing, her lifestyle and the nature of her relationships.” Rather than what it should be – consent and the specific charge at hand. This is called ‘whacking the complainant’ – a term that is both telling and unsettling.

I think about the courage it takes for women to relive their traumatic sexual assault publicly in court – and subsequently have details ‘live tweeted’ to the public by journalists. It is even more unsettling that most women go through this process without a lawyer. It should not be this way.  Women need a lawyer like Marie Henien in their corner too, who can help them prepare, give legal advice and intervene when rights guaranteed by the Supreme Court of Canada are ignored.

Some reforms are basic: women must be able to access free trauma counselling and independent legal counsel. We need stricter rules for defence lawyer conduct and education across the criminal justice sector on sexual assault. Bigger picture, the provincial and federal government must explore alternative justice models – from special courts to restorative justice.

A better way  forward must be possible.

Etana Cain is the Senior Advocacy and Communications Officer at YWCA Toronto