Fewer sexual assault victims are going to police – here’s what everyone needs to do

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The number of self-described sexual assault victims who went to police dropped 15 per cent over the past decade, newly released data shows, once again shining a spotlight on a persistent issue in Canada: why aren’t victims coming forward, and how can they be encouraged to do so?

There’s no one person or entity anyone can point to as an answer. Rather, the answer lies in creating a cultural shift through the work of judges, police, federal and provincial governments, businesses and individuals, said Paulette Senior, president and CEO of the Canadian Women’s Foundation.

READ MORE: Statistics Canada report finds self-reported sexual assault rates steady over 10 years

“Unfortunately, this isn’t a new issue in society,” she said in a telephone interview. “The eyes of the public are opening, but we’re not seeing a change in behaviour.”

Statistics Canada data released this week showed that while the number of people who say they’ve been a victim of sexual assault has remained relatively stable over the years, the number of incidents reported to police dropped by 15 per cent between 2006 and 2016.

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Why don’t they go to police?

The trend once again highlights the fact that police-reported data can underestimate the prevalence of sexual assault in Canada.

A recent Statistics Canada report, using data from 2014, included a range of reasons victims offered when asked why they didn’t go to police.

In 71 per cent of the cases, the victim said they perceived the crime as minor and not worth the time it might take to report, while 67 per cent of victims said the incident was private and handled informally.

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More than four in 10 victims, however, said they didn’t report because they didn’t want the hassle of dealing with police, while another 43 per cent said they didn’t have faith the police would consider the incident important and 40 per cent said they didn’t think the perpetrator would be punished adequately.

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Of the 635,000 self-reported incidents, 87 per cent were women, Statistics Canada wrote in its report.

READ MORE: Why don’t women report rape? Because most get no justice when they do

“On one hand, we know how important it is for women to come forward, so the courts can handle the cases,” Senior said. “But we also know how horrendous the court experience can be for victims.”

Recent high-profile court cases of sexual assault, including those in which Bill Cosby and Jian Ghomeshi were defendants, and the case of Alberta judge Robin Camp – who asked a sexual assault complainant in a trial why she couldn’t keep her knees together – illustrated how traumatic, and sometimes unfruitful, court can be for an alleged victim.

Will anyone believe the victim?

The Canadian Women’s Foundation has data that show just how discouraging the prospect of coming forward with an accusation can be.

A 2014 survey found 13 per cent of Canadians weren’t confident their friends would believe them or take them seriously, while 28 per cent felt the same of police and other authorities, and 15 per cent felt that way about their doctors.

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“If that’s the culture, why would they want to come forward?” Senior asked.

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Just prior to the start of Parliament’s summer hiatus, the House of Commons passed a private member’s bill from former interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose that mandates comprehensive sexual assault training for would-be judges.

The bill will be on the Senate’s agenda when Parliament resumes in the fall.

Putting the puzzle together

Educating incoming judges is one piece of the puzzle, Senior said, but the police, governments, businesses and individuals are pivotal as well.

Senior’s opinion is backed up with data her organization recently collected but has yet to release publicly.

The survey of 1,004 Canadians, conducted over several days in April, asked respondents who they think is most responsible for helping Canada achieve gender equality. While broad, the question includes the issue of empowering female victims of sexual assault to come forward, Senior said.

READ MORE: Readers’ stories of sexual assault

The results suggest 74 per cent of Canadians believe the federal government is most responsible, while 73 per cent said individual citizens are most responsible, 70 per cent pointed to the provincial government, and 61 per cent to national corporations.

Senior explained some responsibilities each can take on. For example, beyond increasing penalties and mandating education, Ottawa could also mandate education in schools and any campaigns automatically have a much wider reach than grass roots organizations can; the public, meanwhile, is the key to breaking sexual assault out of its status as a taboo topic, she said; and businesses – particularly those with a national presence – can look at the advertisements they release and ensure they discourage, rather than encourage, the hyper-sexualization of women, while also encouraging gender equality within their offices.

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READ MORE: Canada sees decline in all crimes but sexual assault rates

The Statistics Canada data is derived from two surveys. One, the General Social Survey on Victimization, is conducted by Statistics Canada every five years and collects information on self-reported incidents of criminal victimization, regardless of whether they were reported to police. The most recent data is from 2014.

Police-reported statistics, on the other hand, come directly from police and includes only the cases that lead to charges. Law enforcement agencies have reported this data to Statistics Canada annually since 1962.

Statistics Canada said earlier this year it will establish guidelines for police forces to include both founded and unfounded cases of sexual assault going forward.

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