My decision was motivated in large part by my desire to share the reasons why even though I’m a Canadian citizen, a lawyer and at the time had no financial dependents or children, I still didn’t take any immediate legal or reporting action.
I hoped my story would help people understand a bit more about all the interlinked social, cultural and systemic factors which makes it exceedingly difficult for the justice system to be the best tool with which to address sexual violence against women.
The jarring reality of just how inept it actually is has been succinctly captured by YWCA data. There are 460,000 assaults in Canada each year. Out of every 1,000 assaults, 33 will be reported to the police and 29 of those will be reported as a crime; 12 will have charges laid; 6 are prosecuted and 3 lead to a conviction.
If reporting violence is still so difficult for women who are elected officials, lawyers or celebrities, then imagine the lived reality of women who are insecure about their immigration status, financially precarious or marginalized by race or historical legacy.
Dec. 6, the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, is the ideal time to call for a renewed focus on creating more emotionally intelligent policy and legislation.
Over the past few months, the federal government has passed laws it believes will protect, respectively: caregivers, women in forced marriages and sex workers. The reforms are not going to be as effective as they could be because they fail to appreciate the cultural and social realities of the women they are hoping to assist.
So much so, that some measures may actually have the reverse impact.
Take the recent changes to the federal caregiver program. The previous requirement that caregivers live with their employers for two years has now been removed – an excellent step towards making an entire group of women safer. However, the potential positive impact of this change has been completely undermined by removing the previous guaranteed path to permanent residency.
Instead, permanent resident applications will be capped at 5,500 applicants a year. This means caregivers now entering Canada won’t know at the outset whether they are on the route to permanence or temporary status. A woman with precarious immigration status, financial need and dependents in their home countries is extremely unlikely to report assault or abuse.
It’s a similar situation with “The Zero Tolerance For Barbaric Cultural Practices Act”, which is intended to prevent polygamy and forced marriages.
The goal is laudable but again front line workers have described it as failing to understand the victims, their lives or the complexity of the familial relationships. As a result, the Act is focused on criminalizing families which in turn decreases the likelihood that women will come forward to access resources or report violence.
The “Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act” is another example of the government ignoring the realities of the people they purport to want to help – in this case, sex workers.
This Act makes it extremely difficult for anyone to advertise sexual services or have prior communication (to screen for danger) – which increases isolation and vulnerability.
This same lack of empathetic awareness is the reason the federal government has chosen not to specifically address the epidemic of missing and murdered Aboriginal women – by framing the issues as just a series of individual crimes, it has willfully ignored all the other factors that interweave to create the landscape in which these tragedies occur.
Ultimately, the macro lesson from the recent discussion on sexual assault and the justice system is that effective policy requires a compassionate and honest understanding of the culture in which it will be applied.
Not how it should be, or even how we wish it was, but what is actually happening. Until we take that more fully into account, efforts to address these problems, no matter how well intentioned, will continue to fall short.
Reva Seth is a lawyer and the bestselling author of The MomShift: Women Share Their Stories of Career Success (Random House: February 2014).
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