A year after Ghomeshi verdict, sexual violence experts see ‘significant advances’
But advocates and academics also say it’s important not to overstate progress on what remains a challenging and multifaceted problem.
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The resignation of Robin Camp, the judge who asked a sexual assault complainant why she didn’t just keep her “knees together.”
A judge who broke new ground by ordering a convicted rapist to pay his victim’s legal bill.
The federal government putting $100 million toward a national strategy for preventing gender-based violence.
It has been a year since former CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi was acquitted of sexually assaulting three women after a trial that led to national debate about the justice system’s handling of such cases, but sexual violence has remained in the spotlight.
Despite a few positive steps in the past 12 months, including changes to tenant and workplace laws in Ontario, it’s important not to overstate progress and how challenging and multifaceted the problem remains, advocates and academics say.
“Every time someone asks me how do I better support (a sexual assault survivor) I think we are moving forward,” says Farrah Khan, the co-ordinator of sexual violence education and support at Ryerson University.
“But there are still so many women who are sexually assaulted and they still face so much victim-blaming.”
There is no doubt public awareness of sexual violence has increased, and that politicians are paying attention, but the same problems still exist, says Isabel Grant, a law professor at the University of British Columbia.
She points to the recent decision (now under appeal) by a Halifax judge to acquit a taxi driver of sexual assault despite the extreme intoxication of the complainant as just one example of how the criminal justice system is still failing.
“There is so much work to be done,” says Grant. “I think we are at the beginning of it now . . . I don’t think we should feel smug.”
Outside the courtroom, crucial supports for women through rape crisis organizations and shelters remain underfunded, and many women, especially from marginalized communities, still face overwhelming barriers to services and protection.
“What are we doing for the most vulnerable women?” she says.
Educator and activist Julie Lalonde says there is growing recognition from the public and politicians that sexual violence is a widespread and complicated issue — but she says it remains frustrating that it has taken so long to get to this point.
“How many high-profile trials (or investigations) will it take for you not to be shocked all the time?” she says of politicians. “Front-line advocates have been talking about this for years . . . You are not listening.”
Much of the focus over the past year has been on the criminal justice system, and judges in particular. A pilot program was introduced to provide four free hours of legal advice to sexual assault survivors. The Canadian Judicial Council recommended Camp be removed as a judge after a rare public inquiry. And judicial education is the focus of a fast-tracked federal bill proposing would-be judges undergo mandatory comprehensive training in sexual assault law. The bill also calls for reports on how many current judges participate in continuing education seminars on sexual assault law.
There have been “halting but significant advances,” says Amanda Dale, the executive director of the Barbra Schlifer clinic for women experiencing violence, pointing to Camp’s resignation and public debate about ethically-questionable defence lawyer tactics.
However, she says, there is a long way to go in removing the reliance on rape myths from investigations and cross-examinations.
“Innocent until proven guilty and rigorous cross examination may never be a healing activity for survivors, but they should at least not be principles that justify discrimination and abuse,” she says.
The federal government allocating funding to diversity training for judges is a positive step but the government also needs to do a better job of appointing diverse, well-qualified judges, says Gillian Hnatiw, a lawyer who specializes in sexual assault and harassment cases.
But faith in the criminal justice system’s ability to properly handle sexual assault cases remains shaken.
Hnatiw says she has seen an increase over the past year in the number of women coming forward to talk about their options beyond reporting their sexual assault to the police — whether it is pursuing a claim at the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board, going to the human rights tribunal, going to a regulatory body like the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, or suing their abuser in civil court.
“I think women have become bolder about calling for change and calling out injustice when they see it,” she adds. “I think the Halifax decision is an example of how women are empowered to not just gnash their teeth anymore, but pick up the phone and complain. The Ghomeshi case didn’t make women angry, I think a lot of women were already angry and it was the spark that compelled them to start (speaking out).”
In the year since the Ghomeshi verdict, the case’s most high-profile complainant Lucy DeCoutere has spent a lot of time thinking about alternative ways for sexual assault survivors to seek justice outside the criminal court system, like restorative justice programs.
“It should be the safest thing,” she says of reporting a sexual assault to the police. “But the legal system is not a friend to you . . . The system is not there to help you. The system is there to go through motions that work as they have for hundreds of years and it takes a long time to turn that ship around.”
Though she applauds women who do testify in court, she says the cost to her has been “too expensive for no payback.”
By expensive she means not just the financial cost of therapy, but the cost to her health and her professional and social life.
The toll of the case, the publicity, the online harassment and the emotionally exhausting conversations with well-meaning strangers left her seriously ill for eight months, she says, and she is only now improving.
She is moving forward by educating the young people around her about consent and intimate-partner violence, so that they understand things she did not.
“Kids are still being taught the bad guys are in the bushes.”
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