Taking Action to End Violence Against Young Women and Girls in Canada

A Summary of the Report put out by the Standing Committee on
the Status of Women

Full document found here

You can download a PDF of this summary here.

In March 2017, the Standing Committee on the Status of Women (a committee within the House of Commons) published their report entitled: Taking Action to End Violence Against Young Women and Girls in Canada. This 160 page document is filled with action items and recommendations to limit violence against women, and improve the lives of Canadians currently affected by this. It is a comprehensive document full of information that can affect change. It is also a document that very few Canadians will actually read. In an effort to make this document more accessible to the average Canadian, I am going to summarize the highlights in just a few pages. As this is a summary, the majority of the text below has been directly taken from the report. Anything that is written/added by me will be in italics.

There are 12 main topics covered in the document - they are:

  1. Overview of Violence Against Women in Canada
  2. Factors Contributing to Violence Against Women and Girls
  3. Types of Violence Experienced by young Women and Girls and Possible Responses
  4. Young Women and Girls with Particular Vulnerabilities to Violence
  5. Establishing Public Awareness and Educational Efforts
  6. Engaging Men and Boys in Addressing Violence Against Women and Girls
  7. Improving Law Enforcement and Justice Systems
  8. Increasing Data Collection, Research and Knowledge Transfer
  9. Supporting Front-lines Services and Community Organizations
  10. Collaborating with the Provinces and Territories
  11. List of Recommendations
  12. List of Observations

Please note: The Committee received testimony from 93 witnesses – 18 of whom appeared as individuals, with the remainder representing 38 organizations, 2 provincial governments and 9 federal departments and agencies. Appendix A of the report includes a list of all 93 witnesses and Appendix B includes a list of all submitted briefs.

Overview of Violence Against Women (VAW) in Canada (Pages 3-8)

The 1993 United Nations (UN) Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women defines violence against women as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life”.

Based on the above definition, below are some key statistics relevant to VAW in Canada:

  • Police-reported victimization rates in 2014 of girls and female youths were over 20% higher than those of young boys and male youths.
  • 27% of Canadian women in 2014 stated they had been victimized as a child, and women were significantly more likely than men (44% vs 16%) to have experienced physical abuse as a child at the hands of a family member.
  • Women comprised 70% of sexual assault victims according to self reported 2009 data and in the majority of all police-reported incidents (94%) in 2014, the accused perpetrator was male.
  • In 2014, 80% of sexual offences against children and youth were directed at females, especially girls between 12 and 17 years of age

Several witnesses spoke of the forthcoming Federal Strategy on Gender-based Violence, and suggested that an action plan or strategy should include:

  • A consideration of the intersectional aspect of sexual violence and an acknowledgement of other forms of oppression
  • A social analysis of sexual violence and measures that address sexual assault
  • A focus on protective factors that promote resilience in youth
  • A comprehensive, prevention-based approach

Factors Contributing to Violence Against Women and Girls (Pages 9-18)

There are 4 specific factors identified that contribute to violence against women and girls in Canada:

  • Sexism, patriarchy, and gender stereotypes
  • Rape culture and victim blaming
  • Hypersexualization and violent and degrading sexually explicit material in pornography and other media
  • Intergenerational patterns of violence

I have pulled out a few examples of the factors contributing to VAW below:

In regards to patriarchy: Walter Henry, Project Coordinator of the Male Ally Network at the Sexual Assault & Violence Intervention Services (SAVIS) of Halton, explained that “[b]oys are born into a toxic masculine culture that has an indoctrinating grasp and far-reaching impact” and that boys are taught “not to cry, to be tough, and not to show weakness.” Boys learn this ideology through  music, television, social media, family members, language, and peers. This contributes to the hyper-violence, street harassment, misguided understanding of consent, and rape culture faced by women and female-identified individuals daily.”

In regards to rape culture: Kenya Rogers and Paloma Ponti, representatives from the Anti-Violence Project of the University of Victoria Students’ Society, shared with the Committee a “rape culture” pyramid, which Ms. Rogers explained as “a visual way of looking at the ways in which sexualized violence is upheld in our society.” Ms. Rogers explained that the words “floating through the triangle are the things that uphold spaces where sexualized violence can happen.

Source: Adapted from the On-Campus Sexual Assault Centre at the University of Victoria, Anti-Violence Project – “Rape Culture Pyramid,” 21 October 2016.

Source: Adapted from the On-Campus Sexual Assault Centre at the University of Victoria, Anti-Violence Project – “Rape Culture Pyramid,” 21 October 2016.

Types of Violence Experienced by young Women and Girls (Pages 19-58)

Young women and girls are at risk of experiencing many different forms violence, which can have a significant impact on them for the rest of their lives. While the Committee’s study focused on three forms of violence against young women and girls (harassment in the public sphere, sexual violence on postsecondary campuses, and cyberviolence)  there are also other serious forms of violence. The Committee heard that young women and girls can be victimized through: physical assault, emotional abuse, harassment, sexual assault, sex trafficking and homicide.

I have pulled out a few examples of violence experienced - focusing on the three forms of violence highlighted in this report:

Harassment in the public sphere: Witnesses suggested that street harassment is often a “fact of life” for many young women and girls and that individuals justify such harassment by saying it is a compliment or a joke. The Committee heard that public transportation is a place where many cases of harassment occur. Men and transportation companies are often not aware that women experience harassment in public spaces and people often do not recognize street harassment as a form of violence. Surveys conducted by chapters of the group Hollaback! suggest that at least 88% of Canadian women have been harassed before the age of 18 and 50% of the respondents had been groped or fondled at least once in the past year. Approximately 95% of the respondents in one survey indicated that over a month-long period, they had experienced street harassment, but only 2% of the respondents said they reported these incidents to authorities.

Sexual violence on postsecondary campuses: Witnesses presented studies that provided estimates on the rate of sexual violence on post-secondary campuses in Canada; approximately 20 to 25% of college and university-aged women will experience some form of sexual assault during their time as a student. Research suggests that the typical victim of sexual assault on campus is a female student and that the perpetrator is a male student. Ms. Dugal, Director of Violence Prevention Programs at the Canadian Women's Foundation, cited a study that showed that one in five male students “agreed that forced sex is acceptable if someone spends money on a date, is stoned or drunk, or has been dating somebody for a long time” and that “60% of Canadian college-aged males indicated they would commit sexual assault if they were certain they couldn’t get caught.” Many witnesses asserted that post-secondary institutions do not respond adequately to instances of sexual violence on their campus.

Possible Responses to Sexual Violence on Post-secondary Campuses:

  • Establishing awareness and educational efforts
  • Improving services for survivors of sexual violence on post-secondary campuses
  • Implementing stand-alone sexual assault policies

Cyberviolence: Cyberviolence involves the use of social media and information and communications technologies (ICTs) for committing an act of violence or extending an act of violence in order to harm the well-being of an individual or group. The Committee was told that cyberviolence against young women and girls is similar to other types of gender-based violence: it is used as a tool to control women, to maintain men’s dominance over women, and to reinforce patriarchal norms, roles and structures.

Specific to cyberviolence in Canada, witnesses provided the following data to the Committee:

  • The most common cyber offence against female children and youth is child luring, followed by invitation to sexual touching.
  • Over 4,000 child sexual exploitation offences were reported in 2014, a 6% increase over 2013.
  • A January 2016 report revealed that of 44,000 images of child sexual abuse examined, 80% of the children in the images were female. In addition, 79% of them appeared to be prepubescent (under 12 years of age) and of that number, around 65% were under eight years of age.

The Committee heard that women who are survivors of cyberviolence can also suffer harm to their financial well-being and career development. They experience anxiety applying for jobs when they know an online search may be conducted. They may face difficulties securing employment because of a damaged digital reputation, and they can experience the potential loss of employment because of mental health problems or because an employer discovers harmful digital content, such as libellous statements or intimate images distributed without consent.

A number of witnesses noted that if there were greater diversity in the technology sector, it would likely lead to technological programs being developed with greater inclusivity and safety in mind. Witnesses stated that the employees in the technology sector are still primarily men, and as such, they are unlikely to understand the intersectional abuse suffered by women, or by other marginalized people.

Note: Cyberviolene was the largest section in this report and I suggest reading more if you are interested in this topic. See pages 32-57.

Young Women and Girls with Particular Vulnerabilities to Violence (Pages 59-70)

While violence affects young women and girls of all social, economic, and cultural groups in Canada, data and research indicate that certain groups of young women and girls are at greater risk of victimization. These groups include:

  • Indigenous young women and girls
  • Immigrant and refugee young women and girls
  • Young women and girls identifying as lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, and 2-spirited
  • Young women and girls living with disabilities
  • Young women and girls experiencing homelessness
  • Young women and girls in rural and remote communities

Witnesses reminded the Committee that these intersectional identities must be taken into consideration during the development of anti-violence initiatives.

Note: I would like to point out that it is likely that women of colour, especially black women, are also at greater risk of victimization (especially in regards to cyberviolence). I would have liked to see the report address this group specifically as to inform the reader what the links between racism and gender based violence are.

Establishing Public Awareness and Educational Efforts (Pages 71-78)

The Committee heard that cultural and societal changes are necessary to end violence against young women and girls and that, as part of this shift, it is essential to educate the public about: gender-based violence, healthy sexuality, consent culture, media and digital literacy, and bystander intervention.

  • Awareness of gender-based violence:
    • Witnesses suggested that the federal government develop and/or invest in a public awareness campaign to promote gender equality and improve the public’s understanding of the factors that contribute to gender-based violence.
  • Healthy sexuality and consent culture:
    • Witnesses explained that promoting healthy sexuality and a consent culture, whereby asking for consent to participate in sexual activities is normalized and respected, would lower rates of gender-based violence and provide support to survivors of violence.
    • Education is needed for both youth and adults.
  • Media and digital literacy:
    • The Committee was told that while social media can promote harmful concepts related to sexuality, it can also be harnessed to “uproot rape culture and promote positive cultural change,” by engaging Canadians in critical and educational dialogues. Media literacy should be provided to all children; in particular, young women and girls must be taught how to critically examine the popular culture messages which tend to push for the hypersexualization of their bodies.
  • The bystander approach:
    • The bystander approach is centred on the idea that everyone has a role to play in challenging and interrupting violent behaviour and that in each peer culture, individuals should be upholding social norms that condemn violent behaviour.

Engaging Men and Boys in Addressing Violence Against Women and Girls (Pages 79-84)

The Committee heard that educating and engaging men and boys is crucial to ending violence against women. Mr. Henry, Project Coordinator of the Male Ally Network at SAVIS of Halton, stated that “reducing and preventing violence against women requires the participation of men who can model non-violent behaviour and hold their male counterparts accountable.” Witnesses explained that while most violence against women is committed by men, most men are not perpetrators of violence and that it is therefore important to teach young men and boys how to intervene if they witness violence

  • Best practices to engage men and boys:
    • The Committee heard about the importance of engaging male role models, for example professional athletes, to speak publicly about the issue of violence against young women and girls in order to clarify that this behaviour is unacceptable. For example, the MAN Program “seeks to use men and boys as role models to start the conversation with their children, their peers, and within their everyday environment.”
  • Engaging Indigenous men and boys:
    • According to Ms. Maracle, Executive Director of the Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres, public education campaigns targeted to Indigenous men must be delivered in Indigenous languages and must be culturally relevant. There must be acknowledgement of the intergenerational trauma in Indigenous communities tied to colonialism, residential schools, and child welfare.
  • Engaging perpetrators of violence against women:
    • There are a variety of programs for men who have perpetrated violence against women, such as the New Leaf Program, a program for men who have been abusive and have chosen to stop their violent behaviour. Cathy Grant, Director of the New Leaf Program, stated that men who have perpetrated violence must take responsibility for their actions and be held accountable, but that change can occur if they spend time in a supportive program. Ms. Grant cautioned that men who are mandated to take part in the program for a short period of time in lieu of criminal sentencing do not see the same benefits as those who are self-motivated to take part in the program for longer periods of time.

Improving Law Enforcement and Justice Systems (Pages 85-94)

While legislation delivers important moral messages and upholds Canada’s core values, this legislation must also be enforced and justice must be delivered.

  • Barriers to reporting and pursuing justice:
    • The Committee heard that the first barrier to accessing justice for many young women and girls is at the reporting stage; many cases of violence, particularly sexual violence, are not brought to the authorities because of a culture of silence and stigma and survivors’ internalized shame and fear. Among Indigenous communities, this culture of silence is exacerbated because of a long-standing mistrust in authorities rooted in a history of colonization and family separation.
    • Witnesses voiced their concerns about the high “unfounded” rates in cases of sexual assault, as reported by police services. In these situations, women have sought the assistance of the police following an alleged sexual assault, and have been turned away without an investigation or attempt to prosecute.
  • Training for law enforcement and judiciary:
    • Law enforcement agencies and the judiciary remain male dominated, and these men do not “intimately understand the realities of being a young woman.” A number of witnesses stated that police officers, crown attorneys, and judges often believe in sexual assault myths and stereotypes that define “victim” and “offender” and engage in victim blaming.
    • Witnesses stated that law enforcement officers and members of the judiciary should receive trauma-informed training on gender-based violence, whereby they would be educated on understanding, recognizing and responding to the effects of different forms of violence.
  • Select legislative changes in the areas of law enforcement and justice:
    • The Committee heard that, in too many situations, the perpetrators of violent crimes against young women and girls received sentences that were unreasonably short. Ms. Harper, of the Antigonish Women's Resource Centre and Sexual Assault Services, said that the criminal justice system must change to ensure “sentences reflect the seriousness of these crimes as a deterrent, but also to reflect the often lifetime impact of such crimes on their victims and the victims' families.”
  • Restorative and alternative justice options:
    • Some witnesses stated that survivors should have access to different forms of justice, including the criminal justice system and restorative or alternative justice, and that some survivors may encounter better outcomes and feel more fulfilled through restorative or alternative justice.
    • However, other witnesses voiced concerns about restorative or alternative justice approaches, raising fears that men would not be held accountable for their violence and that power imbalances would not be properly mediated in the process.

Increasing Data Collection, Research and Knowledge Transfer (Pages 95-98)

Witnesses spoke of the need to improve data collection and research, both quantitative and qualitative in nature, on the subject of gender-based violence across Canada. In particular, research on promising practices in preventing and addressing sexual violence would be valuable to governments and front-line organizations.

Additional research is needed, according to some witnesses, on specific subjects such as:

  • Rape culture, the role of social media in gender-based violence, hypersexualization, and the normalization of violence
  • The impact of anti-violence awareness campaigns
  • Promising practices to address sexual violence on post-secondary campuses
  • The impact of pornography on youth in Canada

Supporting Front-lines Services and Community Organizations (Pages 99-104)

The Committee heard that it is essential to provide support to front-line services and community organizations that address violence against women, including young women and girls. In particular, additional support is required for young women and girls who have been victimized through cyberviolence and sexual assault.

  • Increasing services for survivors of sexual violence:
    • Witnesses explained that wait lists for assistance at sexual assault centres can last from months to a year, which is unacceptable.
    • The Committee heard that mainstream support services should be more inclusive by offering programming in multiple languages, by employing diverse staff, and including the religious/spiritual healing practices of participants.
  • Supporting community organizations:
    • Witnesses suggested that when government departments or agencies ask to work collaboratively with community organizations, they should acknowledge the  organizations’ limited capacity and provide accompanying funding and support.
    • Witnesses stated that services and programming provided by community organizations should be evidence-based, but that conducting these evaluations is time consuming and expensive. The Committee was told that the federal government can play a role in encouraging and funding evaluations of practices across the country, to ensure the most effective services are delivered.

Collaborating with the Provinces and Territories (Pages 105-106)

The Committee encourages the federal government to collaborate, where possible, with provinces and territories on issues under provincial and territorial jurisdictions including on the following issues:

  • The incorporation by the provinces and territories of age-appropriate sex education in the curriculum of elementary and high schools.
  • Encouraging provinces and territories to establish post-secondary sexual violence support divisions and stand-alone sexual assault policies.
  • There is a need for provincial cyber safety laws and education acts that address cyberviolence.
  • Support the compilation and dissemination of data and research on gender-based violence, and on promising practices to end this violence, from all levels of government.
  • Provincial law enforcement and justice officials need ongoing training on gender-based violence.

List of Recommendations:

  • See pages 107-116 (here)

List of Observations:

  • See pages 117-118 (here)

You can download a PDF of this summary here.