Sexual Violence Awareness Week aimed to recognize experiences of survivors

Week included a keynote speech from Globe and Mail journalist Robyn Doolittle

Robyn Doolittle in Wallace Hall on Wednesday.

This past week, the AMS Social Issues Commission facilitated Sexual Violence Awareness Week in an effort to provide a “brief glimpse at the essential dialogues that fuel sexual violence prevention and response on our campus,” according to their event page.

The Social Issues Commission (SIC)  hosted the week in collaboration with the Bystander Intervention Training Program, Student Affairs and the Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Coordinator.

In an interview with The Journal, Commissioner of Social Issues Ramna Safeer said efforts in sexual violence prevention and education are “very outward facing.” This means they focus more on bystanders than victims.

“There’s a lot of outward education around consent, around bystander awareness and skills to be a positive bystander,” Safeer said. “I think there’s a need for a balance, for community building and recognizing the experiences and the shared experiences and nuanced experiences of survivors or victims.” 

To find this balance, Safeer said one goal of Sexual Violence Awareness Week is to take a survivor-centric approach to awareness.

“A lot of the intention behind starting to have our work be more survivor-centric and focus on the post-traumatic growth is not just in my commitment to this work, but also as a survivor myself,” Safeer added. “What post-traumatic growth looks like to me is a willingness and an ability to come to terms with how my past trauma has shaped the way that I navigate through the world and see myself and my body.” 

The week featured a keynote address from award-winning journalist Robyn Doolittle on Nov. 22. On Feb. 3 of this year, Doolittle published The Globe and Mail’s “Unfounded” piece after a two-year probe into police sexual assault investigation processes. 

The week also incorporated multiple student and staff spotlight posts on social media. It will conclude with a Post-traumatic Growth Art Show on Nov. 24 to be hosted by the Mental Health Awareness Committee (MHAC). 

“I think this week we wanted to balance that a little bit and have a conversation [like Dootlittle’s keynote] about what it’s like to be a survivor or victim in the justice system, and then end the week off with a post-trauma growth art show that is very much for that community,” Safeer said.

During her address, Doolittle relayed stories of sexual assault victims who went to the police and the process by which she conducted her investigation of these cases. Over the span of two years, she interviewed numerous authorities, specialized professionals in various fields related to sexual assault prevention, medical professionals and more. 

Her probe culminated in the discovery that an average of one in five sexual assault complaints are dismissed as ‘unfounded’ in Canada. Doolittle told the audience this “is a police closure code that means the investigating officer thinks an allegation is baseless, and that a crime did not occur.” 

“Unfounded cases are not the same as when police don’t have enough evidence to lay a charge: they mean, ‘You said you were raped, and I don’t think you were raped,’” she explained. 

Doolittle recounted the many different areas in which sexual assault allegations have lacked proper investigation. She said victims are asked questions unrelated to the assault, suspects often aren’t interviewed, medical information isn’t interpreted properly, witnesses aren’t called in and investigating officers often lack understanding of rape myths. There’s also a lack of resources allocated towards sexual assault cases in many police departments. 

Doolittle also discussed the creation of the Philadelphia Model, a program wherein “once a year, advocates working in the violence against women sector are given full access to sexual assault departments’ internal investigative files. They can go through those cases, and look for signs of bias or investigative missteps.” 

Since the program launch 17 years ago, the number of unfounded cases in Philadelphia went from 18 per cent — the highest among America’s 10 largest cities at the time — to four per cent. 

In light of the publication of ‘Unfounded,’ Doolittle says many police stations across the country, including Kingston Police — where the dismissal of sex assault cases as unfounded is 19 per cent — have vowed to enact change in how they handle sexual assault complaints. 

“Kingston is actually one of the best in the country in terms of trying to do better right now,” she said. 

Doolittle concluded her keynote with her primary message. “Pretty well everyone I interviewed for this story thought the same thing: they never in a million years thought it could be them,” she said. 

“So if there’s anyone in this room who’s waiting for sexual assault to personally touch their lives before being educated about the need for reform — don’t,” she said. “Don’t wait. Because statistics would suggest that it’s already touched your life, or someone else close to you, even if you don’t know about it.” 


AMS, Journalism, Robyn Doolittle, Sexual Assault, Sexual Violence Awareness Week

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