By Haley Ryan - Metro Halifax
HALIFAX - I believe you, and this is not your fault.
© Metro Halifax/Jeff Harper
Avalon Sexual Assault Centre Executive Director Irene Smith poses for a portrait at the Lord Nelson Thursday.
A simple sentence, but Irene Smith of the Avalon Sexual Assault Centre said it’s one that makes a huge difference to victims of abuse. They stay silent because they’re afraid no one will believe them.
On Thursday in Halifax, Avalon marked 30 years of history with a conference titled Start By Believing, and launched a campaign of the same name.
Starting Oct.1, Metro Transit will feature posters on their buses which contain facts about sexual assault and carry the message “To help, you can start by believing.”
“We need to take that message out to the general public,” said Smith, Avalon’s executive director. “Start by believing. Don’t start by saying ‘Really?’”
The conference hosted four speakers and educated prosecutors, police, health-care providers and others on how to take a “different lens” when dealing with victims of sexual abuse.
“How can we do things differently, how do we support people who are coming forward instead of blaming victims?” Smith said.
Jackie Stevens, coordinator of community education and training for Avalon, said Start By Believing is adapted from a program through End Violence Against Women International.
She said the campaign is timely in light of Rehtaeh Parsons’ death, a 17-year-old girl who took her own life after years of bullying following an alleged rape when she was 15.
Stevens said Avalon heard from many women who were able to come forward because of Rehtaeh’s story, and the refusal of her family to “stay silent” or victim-blame.
Part of the campaign is addressing why we always question the victim’s behaviour, but not why the offence is happening.
“It’s easier to do that than take action against it,” Stevens said. “If we can separate ourselves from people who get sexually assaulted, ‘It won’t happen to me, and I don’t have to be responsible.”
She said if society continues to blame the victim, that’s sending a message to an offender they don’t need to stop their behaviour.
The importance of the campaign was underlined for Stevens when an Avalon support group explored the impact of being faced with judgment and disbelief when they talk about abuse.
“This actually furthers their trauma and may shut down that process of them moving forward,” Stevens said.
But when the group encountered support and belief, they could move beyond the violence.
“It mobilizes people to be able to take back control of their life,” she said.