By Maddie Binning
A Ryerson student has spearheaded a sexual assault support group in response to the Jian Ghomeshi verdict. The coalition’s goal is to gain support from other organizations to help survivors navigate the legal processes involved in reporting sexual assault.
The Sexual Assault Action Coalition (SAA) was put together by Jenna Davies, a fourth-year social work student and Viktoria Bitto, an advocate for the Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care.
The coalition came together on March 25 when former CBC broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi was acquitted of all charges. Ghomeshi faced four counts of sexual assault and one count of overcoming resistance by choking, but was found not guilty after Judge William Horkins said that the witnesses’ testimonies were not only inconsistent but, “tainted by outright deception.” Horkins also referred to them as “deceptive and manipulative.”
Davies said she had been following the trial and that the verdict led her to take action. “I personally had a very visceral reaction to hearing the verdict,” said Davies. “I basically just knew something had to happen.”
Davies and Bitto are roommates, so Davies came to her with the idea for the initiative. They created the coalition’s Facebook page shortly after the verdict was given and they planned their first meeting for the following Tuesday.
That evening, Bitto went to the rally and march hosted by Ryerson’s Centre for Women and Trans People and Ryerson’s Office for Sexual Violence Support and Education, in order to promote the coalition, which had formed just hours earlier.
“Women will exchange their expertise to create a space of healing, justice and solidarity,” states the SAA coalition’s vision statement. “We work within an intersectional and anti-oppresive, anti-racist, framework.”
It also says on their Facebook page that all survivors are welcome.
There were 20 people who attended the SAA coalition’s first meeting and some of the survivors began sharing their stories. Davies and Bitto noticed that there were a number of similarities to the stories in terms of the outcome of reporting the incidents.
Bitto said that she personally has been sexually assaulted and while she reported it right away, her case was thrown out because there was no DNA or video evidence. She said it was sad to hear so many women sharing similar stories but that the meeting also showed her that the coalition is headed in the right direction.
“It provided a lot of solidarity and a lot of support,” said Bitto. “It was already the beginning of what we wanted the coalition to be, which is women supporting women [and] women exchanging their expertise and their support to help each other heal.”
For Bitto and Davies, support is only one part of the solution.
“No woman that we’ve met, that Jenna and I have spoken to, understands the process of reporting and beyond that, what it’s going to look like if they have to go to trial,” said Bitto. “We want to give women that training and that opportunity to have that education to navigate a system that’s broken while advocating for change within that system.”
Davies also said that the coalition will include a mentorship program to give women who have gone through the reporting process or gone to trial a chance to mentor other women who are going through the same processes.
“As much as we’re going to advocate for change within the justice system, that’s not a thing that happens overnight,” said Davies.
“[The question is] how do women work currently with the system that we have and what are the realities of what you’re going to be met with, so we can better prepare survivors as they go through those processes.”
But the coalition won’t just focus on the legal aspects of sexual assault. They also plan to offer a variety of services such as trauma-informed counseling and art therapy to provide a “one stop shop” for survivors.
Bitto’s background in child care as well as Davies’ social work degree, which she will receive at the end of this school year, will also add to the services.
Bitto said child care could be a possibile service as women may need someone to take care of their children when they’re seeing a lawyer or going to therapy. While the coalition is still in its early stages, they hope to begin providing services within the next month.
“Right now, we’re still consulting with the community,” said Bitto. “We’re still inviting people to guide as well as guiding them because we do want it to be a collaborative approach. This isn’t a hierarchy. This isn’t Jenna and I leading the troops to victory. This is women working together to create change for each other.”
With files from Alanna Rizza