by Julie Delahanty,
Executive Director of Oxfam Canada
We'll leave it to the courts to decide the fate of former CBC broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi, whose trial on five counts of sexual assault begins this week. But the issues his case raises about the way we view violence against women will linger on long after the trial is over. Sexual assault and violence against women are often crimes in which the victims not only know their attackers, but are intimate with them. Statistically, 84 per cent of cases of reported violence against women in Canada and 75 per cent of sexual assaults involve attacks by our intimate partners, family members, or acquaintances. It's the people we love and know who hurt us.
Unfortunately, that fact complicates how people react to these crimes. Shame, victim-blaming and stigma are such common aspects of crimes of violence against women that many victims never go to the police. Within 24 hours after Toronto journalist Antonia Zerbisias introduced the #BeenRapedNeverReported hashtag on social media, more than eight million people around the world had used it.
These aren't the simple crime stories of corner-store owners robbed at gunpoint. These are complicated stories where just stepping forward with an allegation requires tremendous bravery, given that victims have to reveal the most private details of their lives to seek justice.
We have all wondered how violence against women and girls continues to be so prevalent – whether in our own neighborhoods or around the world. Anti-violence legislation in over 125 countries around the world is obviously not sufficient. I know from my work that it's underlying beliefs about what are 'appropriate' roles for men and women and power relations between them that often perpetuate a culture of violence – making negative gender norms a key root cause of violence against women and girls.
These norms are hard to see and to change because they seem, well, "normal". They contribute to making violence seem acceptable or expected, and to questioning the victim more than the perpetrator.
In the early days after Ghomeshi was accused, many quickly jumped to his defence. He's a handsome, popular man completely beloved by CBC listeners. Many Canadians felt they "knew" him well after years of listening to him on the radio, and couldn't believe that the man they spent every weekday with was accused of being a violent predator.
Their reaction highlighted yet another complexity about these crimes: they're so often committed in private spaces with nobody to witness them; they are essentially he-said-she-said cases. And who "he" or "she" is in the world counts for a lot.
In the Ghomeshi case specifically, it wasn't until victims with more or less equal "star" stature – actor Lucy DeCoutere and author Reva Seth – stepped up with their own accusations that the public dialogue shifted. Imagine how things might have played out had all of his accusers been women with no power or social standing – sex workers, for instance.
Even among those who ought to know better, you'll still overhear people speculating, "But did she provoke him?" or "Well, what did she expect, dressed like that?" when talking about a specific case of violence against a woman. Even in Canadian courts, there are still judges who ask 19-year-old victims why they didn't keep their knees together to prevent a rape. No other crime provokes such victim-blaming.
Oxfam recently announced a partnership with the Government of Canada to reduce gender based violence in Asia. Among other projects, Oxfam is working with opinion makers, leaders and youth in the region to model changes and build honest conversations about the attitudes and social norms that all too often are used to rationalize violence.
As I watch the news on the Ghomeshi trial this week, I am reminded that violence against women has no borders. Canada also needs to have the same honest conversations, because the best chance of ending violence against women in our own country starts with changing the way we think about it.