Frontline workers who help victims of sexual assault are calling on the Saskatchewan government to make changes to help put an end to violence against women.
“We presented the minister with about six recommendations,” explained Debbie House, administrator of the Regina Sexual Assault Centre (RSAC). “We’ve been in this business for about 40 years and there’s been pretty much not a lot of change.”
Statistics Canada reports that Saskatchewan has the highest rate of sexual assault, domestic violence and intimate partner murders in all 10 provinces. With about 635 victims per 100,000 people, the provincial rate of domestic violence between partners was twice the national rate.
House says the national statistics of 500,000 sexual assaults per year don’t begin to cover the real number, in her opinion it would be closer to one million.
“Out of that half a million, 1,000 cases will be reported. Out of that 1,000, there might be charges laid in 10. There will be convictions in three,” she said.
House says that’s one of the main reasons why so many sexual assaults don’t get reported at all. Not only is the conviction rate almost zero, she says the process of going through the justice system can make people feel like they’re being revictimized.
While she admits that the statistics aren’t very good when it comes to male victims of sexual assault, she says about 95 per cent of the victims at the RSAC are women and only five per cent are male.
One of the six recommendations is to provide better training of police officers, prosecutors and the judiciary on how to treat victims of sexual assault and to instate policies of zero tolerance and mandatory charges.
“Victims need to be supported by the prosecutors, they need to be supported by police and they need to be supported by the judiciary, and they’re not right now in our opinion,” House said.
The brief also focuses on education and awareness about consent starting at a very early age in school.
“What we’re hoping for is that we start educating young people early about healthy relationships and how to be safe,” House said. “You can’t start educating people when they’re 30, you have to start educating people when they’re six.”
The RSAC is also recommending forming a working group to consider amending current legislation or introducing new laws to better help victims of domestic and sexual abuse.
In the past year, six Saskatchewan women have allegedly been killed by their male partners. This week, Justice Minister Gord Wyant announced the province will develop a committee and a process to review domestic violence deaths.
Janet Tzupa is the director of housing at the YWCA which runs an emergency shelter for single women and two for women and children. She says the shelters are often overwhelmed by the need for safe housing, especially for women fleeing domestic abuse. This September she says they had to turn away 99 women and 60 children because they didn’t have the space.
Tzupa witnesses the cycle of domestic violence every day, and she’s not surprised to hear that Saskatchewan has the highest rate of murders by intimate partners.
“I think it’s something that really quite concerns me because we need to do something about that,” she said. “I’m not sure if it so much surprises me as it kind of appalls me.”
She says the most heartbreaking cases are the ones where women keep going back to violent partners because they believe things have changed. Tzupa says they are also seeing more women whose abusive partners are high up in gangs and that makes it even more complicated to find somewhere safe to go.
“We had someone not long ago who basically said to staff, ‘you know what, I’m just going to be a missing and murdered aboriginal woman and that’s okay because it’s just going to happen. I just want to make sure my kids are okay before it happens,'” Tzupa recalled.
She says it’s really hard to hear those stories from women who seem to accept that something tragic is going to happen to them because they feel hopeless.
“They’re using the shelter as a safe place for now and they know down the road they’re going to be involved with their partner again. They’re going to be involved in this abusive relationship again and they know what the possibility is going to be,” Tzupa said. “I think that’s something that is really heartbreaking and something that needs to change.”
She says many of the women who come in as victims of domestic abuse actually grew up in similar situations, and that shows a cycle of violence.