Stewart: Sexual assault — women should be able to speak without fear

I was raped at 18, but I didn’t want to be labelled a victim so I stayed silent. If we authentically and openly share our stories, we risk surrendering our identity as strong, independent women. That needs to change.

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The start of a new school year often represents great hope and optimism. Unfortunately, as recent allegations of sexual violence at Western University have demonstrated, it’s also a time of exceptional vulnerability for many young women arriving at universities and colleges across Canada.


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Such incidents are much more prevalent than we realize or want to admit. I know this from personal experience. When I was 18, I was raped by my boyfriend. Clear boundaries had been set, and they were crossed without my consent.

Very few people know this happened because, like so many victims, I didn’t want to share my story. It was devastating and it had an immediate and significant impact on my life, but I was adamant it would not define me.

I wanted to be an entrepreneur, a community leader, a loving partner, and a mother to my children. I wanted to control my own image. I did not want to be labelled as a victim.

It’s heartbreaking that I and so many other women are faced with this choice. If we authentically and openly share our stories, we risk surrendering our identity as strong, independent women. That leads to many conflicting feelings for survivors of sexual assault. And it also stops women from seeking the help they need when abuse occurs.


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My story is sadly common. According to Statistics Canada, 71 per cent of students at Canadian postsecondary schools in 2019 witnessed or experienced unwanted sexualized behaviours — either on campus, or in an off-campus situation that involved students or other people associated with the school.

One in 10 female students experienced a sexual assault in a post-secondary setting during the previous year and about one in five women who were sexually assaulted said that the assault took the form of a sexual activity to which they did not consent after they had agreed to another form of sexual activity — for example, agreeing to have protected sex and then learning it had been unprotected sex.

These numbers are not mere statistics. Each of them is the story of a young woman who will live with an assault for the rest of her life. It is an experience that will be with her forever, as a friend, as a member of the community, as a mother, and as a spouse and partner.


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I implore all candidates for public office at every level to think about these young women and the changes we can make to respect and support them, including:

— More funding for survivor-focused support programs and health services;

— More training about trauma for those working in the justice system;

— Better policies and procedures for handling sexual assault cases with sensitivity and respect;

— Alternative approaches to sexual assault cases and more sensitive and respectful practices in the criminal justice system;

— More education about partner abuse and sexual assault in post-secondary institutions, the true meaning of consent, and the risks and benefits of reporting sexual violence.

We have placed great emphasis on mental health at a high level, but too often we don’t drill down into how we can sustain it at the most crucial times. We need to create an environment in which every woman knows she can speak up without fear and that she will be heard.

There are thousands of young women in our community and across the country who are arriving at university campuses this month. Some of them have never been away from home before. I owe them my story, which is why I’m speaking up on an issue that desperately needs more attention. And we owe them a better world in which they are safe and validated and treated with sensitivity and respect.

Jennifer Stewart is the President and CEO of Syntax Strategic.


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