British Columbia

18 sexual-assault victims come forward for new report about barriers in reporting crime

The report highlighted socio-cultural attitudes toward sexual assault like victim blaming; fears of repercussions or of not having enough evidence for a case; and the conduct of individuals working in the justice system as a few factors.

Victim blaming, fears of repercussions, conduct of people in justice system among challenges cited

The #MeToo movement on social media has shone a light on the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment but they remain largely unreported crimes. (Mihai Surdu/Shutterstock)

A new report based on interviews with survivors highlights the barriers that remain in reporting sexual assault — from fears of not being taken seriously to discriminatory treatment — even in the #MeToo era.

The report, released this month by the women's legal advocacy group West Coast LEAF and the YWCA, looks at 18 women who were sexually assaulted and their experiences with the criminal justice system. Of the 18, only seven chose to report their assault to police.

"We learned that women had great concerns about being automatically disbelieved," said Alana Prochuk, co-author of the report and manager of public legal education at West Coast LEAF.

"We heard lots of concerns about being blamed."

The report highlighted socio-cultural attitudes toward sexual assault like victim blaming; fears of repercussions or of not having enough evidence for a case; and the conduct of individuals working in the justice system as a few of the factors determining whether a victim reports sexual assault or not. 

The interviews were conducted by YWCA Metro Vancouver staff over the phone and at several support organizations in the Vancouver area. 

Discrimination and marginalization

Sexual assaults are "devastatingly common" in Canada, Prochuk said, citing Statistics Canada research that shows one in 25 women in Canada experienced sexual assault in the last year.

"This issue doesn't impact all women in the same way. The rates of violence are very different based on different factors of marginalization," she said.

"When we think about how people's credibility is assessed, a lot of discrimination can come into play."

Only about five per cent of sexual assaults are reported to police, Prochuk said.

"Navigating the criminal justice system is not the path to healing and justice for all women — that's not the point of the report at all," she told Stephen Quinn, the host of CBC's The Early Edition.

"But for some survivors, it is a meaningful part of their path and they find that huge barriers stand in their way — it's about identifying those barriers and chipping away at them."

RCMP logo can be seen on an officers uniform.
Sexual assault survivor Jodie Ortega says it took her years to be able to report the crimes committed against her to police. (CBC)

'Mentally draining process'

Jodie Ortega, a survivor of multiple sexual assaults who was interviewed for the report, waited years before going to police with her story.

"The only thing I was thinking of after I had been assaulted was survival — I was a teenager, I wasn't thinking of taking a bus to Burnaby RCMP," said Ortega, who is now an advocate for assault survivors.

"There's a myth that after a person is sexually assaulted, the first step that they do is they go report to the police. That was not my case in all three separate cases."

She eventually reported the crimes after years of reflection and consistent therapy, through a third party.

"It was a really exhausting and mentally draining process," Ortega said.

"Before you go into it, you have this mindset that, 'this is going to be empowering' … it's not the case and it definitely is re-traumatizing, especially if you don't have the specific supports available."

With files from The Early Edition