In the last few years, we have witnessed a revitalized global movement to challenge the status quo and demand that institutions that are perpetuating the deleterious effects of patriarchy be dismantled. We have seen a mass collective of women from Canada, the United States, Paris, Brazil, India and even Iran take to the streets demanding the end of sexual and other forms of violence and coercion against women.
What has allowed women to come forward and challenge this status quo? #Metoo and #Timesup.
This is not the first time women have publicly come forward to talk about the issue of violence, and sexual violence in particular. Much of these movements are a continuation of the feminist activities we saw in the 19th and 20th centuries.
For the past two years, ILA has empowered survivors to make important decisions about their experiences with sexual violence. In June 2016, Ontario’s provincial government, as part of its plan called It’s Never Okay: An Action Plan to Stop Sexual Violence and Harassment, rolled out a pilot program to provide free, independent legal advice (ILA) to survivors of sexual assault in Toronto, Ottawa and Thunder Bay. This program offers up to four hours of free advice to survivors. Within the Greater Toronto Area, one of the organizations to provide ILA is the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic (the “Clinic”) – the only clinic in Canada that offers trauma-informed, wrap-around services to women survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence. Clients who access the Clinic can take advantage of its legal, counselling and interpretation services. The Clinic’s participation in the pilot has been tremendously successful. Not only has the Clinic seen a significant increase in clients since the launch of the program, but it has also supported law firms and gender-based social services in assisting survivors in sexual assault situations.
Since its introduction, the ILA program has supported hundreds of clients understand their legal rights as survivors of sexual violence. Because of the program’s success, before the Ontario government changed hands, the province-wide expansion of the program was announced. More Ontarians would benefit from the announced expansion of this program and, in a best-case scenario, more women would be able to access services in spaces similar to the Schlifer Clinic, where women feel safe. As legal professionals and advocates wait with baited breath for an update on the future of ILA, access to the program’s services currently remain available for all three pilot sites through service vouchers and direct service at the Clinic.
For the past two years, ILA has empowered survivors to make important decisions about their experiences with sexual violence. It has enabled many to gain access to justice – this alone has allowed many to start healing from the traumatic effects of sexual violence. Although the ILA does not provide representation in its legal services, it is free and allows service providers to give survivors access to other accessible social and legal services. Many of these attendant services are offered through referrals to counsellors or lawyers, often for clients who have complex needs as a result of sexual violence. Many clients seek referrals to counselling and even immigration legal support. Last year, the Clinic experienced a 100 per cent increase in requests for services by survivors of sexual assault. Women who contacted the Clinic for advice represented those from across all classes, along the entire racial spectrum and with a wide variety of different abilities. The Clinic clients have come to us from community referrals, drop-in services, self-referrals, word of mouth, outreach and provincial phone line referral.
Lawyers and legal professionals participating in the ILA program have made a significant difference survivors’ journey toward healing. ILA lawyers support clients by:
- explaining how the criminal and other justice processes work;
- outlining how to make an applications for compensation and human rights complaints;
- helping clients understand the pros and cons of each legal option discussed; and
- in some cases, assisting clients lodge a complaint against a professional who has committed a sexual assault.
Perhaps most importantly, ILA lawyers offer survivors options to move on and build vibrant and productive lives away from violence.
Some women have decided never to take action after receiving legal advice because they felt that the validation of their experiences of sexual violence was enough. The response from women who have accessed the program is overwhelmingly favourable. Many survivors learn about the role they play while interacting with the legal or justice systems. Survivors remarked that the program helped them understand that what happened to them was wrong and that they can heal. Many commented that the program had given them back a voice they thought they had lost. Some women have decided never to take action after receiving legal advice because they felt that the validation of their experiences of sexual violence was enough.
While no law or process can “take back” a woman’s experience of violence, ILA has the potential to revolutionize the legal response to sexual assault. In an era of high profile survivor stories outlining negative experiences with legal systems, ILA along with appropriate legal reform, can help restore the public faith in the rule of law. If replicated, the Clinic’s holistic model may also serve as a conduit to the legal system for sexual violence survivors everywhere.
Legal advice must go hand-in-hand with accessible counselling and social services for survivors. That is the only way women can feel empowered to begin their journey toward healing. Eventually the expansion of this program into community hubs and hospitals, through legislative and governmental support, will contribute to changing societal views. Large-scale structural and social change may not happen tomorrow or in the immediate future. However, with a strong base, institutional support and legal assistance from advocates and lawyers who work with the ILA program, we will begin to see a paradigm shift needed for survivors of violence.