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Project 97: A conversation on sexual assault, abuse & harassment

Take a quick glance at the data on sexual assault in Canada and you will find a disturbing set of numbers. Like 472,000: the number of Canadian women who reported being sexually assaulted in 2009, the last year Statistics Canada conducted a comprehensive survey. Or 1,680: the number of assault reports that ended with convictions in Canadian courts in 2011. Or 67: the percentage of Canadians who say they know at least one woman who has been sexually or physically assaulted.

The vast majority of sexual assaults against women in this country — about 97 per cent — are never recorded as crimes by police. It is an outrageous statistic, and it’s the reason we have decided to launch a year-long project examining Canada’s staggering problems with sexual violence.

In most cases, police don’t investigate because assault victims haven’t come forward — though the 97 per cent figure also reflects the fact that some report but later withdraw their complaints. Women have plenty of reasons to want to avoid pressing charges: many find their encounters with the legal system, particularly the highly adversarial courtroom experience, as traumatizing as the original assault. They worry about how others will perceive them if they come forward as victims — particularly in the pile-on-and-think-later world of social media.

They may believe the justice system will be biased against them; they certainly know that once inside it, their own actions will be scrutinized. (Did they have a drink before the assault occurred? Perhaps they’d once dated their assailant?) In some cases, victims feel they are just too busy with careers, school and families to have the time to go back to the police station.

That 97 per cent must change — because in any just and civil society, victims of sexual assault shouldn’t be suffering in silence, feeling that they can’t speak up, believing that they have no chance of seeing justice.

The silence may be ending. At the very least, a new conversation could be beginning — one that Canadians have needed for years. The stunning criminal charges against former CBC Radio host Jian Ghomeshi; the heart-wrenching accounts of the tortured final year of Nova Scotia teenager Rehtaeh Parsons; the allegations against comedian Bill Cosby of serial sexual assaults on a number of women — these cases have sparked fresh discussion about what needs to be done to change such appalling statistics.

“The best solution, if there is such a thing, is for people to know that it’s not going to be quiet anymore,” says Cheri DiNovo, a Toronto member of the Ontario legislature who shared her own story of rape by an ex-boyfriend for this project.”This is not going to be hush-hush.”

We want to keep that conversation going. Over the course of the next 12 months, Rogers Media — through its publishing and broadcasting outlets, including Chatelaine, Maclean’s, Canadian Business, Flare, Today’s Parent, Châtelaine, L’actualité and CityNews — will explore issues of sexual assault, abuse and harassment as it affects both women and men.

Watch for our journalism at www.project97.ca and on each publication’s website. We hope you’ll read these stories and share some of your own as we embark on this year-long exploration of what it’ll take to make that number, 97 per cent, a lot lower.

Rogers is the parent company of this station and website.