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Understanding Women’s Experiences with the Criminal Justice System as Victims and Survivors

The following sections provide a brief overview of the experiences of women in the criminal justice system as victims and survivors. For additional information, click on the Studies link at the bottom of the page.

  • Data Sources on Victimization

    In Canada, most national data on victims and survivors of crimes come from the Uniform Crime Reporting Survey (UCR),Footnote 48 the General Social Survey (GSS) on Canadians’ Safety (Victimization),Footnote 49 and the Survey of Safety in Public and Private Spaces (SSPPS).Footnote 50 The UCR survey consists of police-reported data. This means that the UCR contains information on only those incidents that have come to the attention of the police and that have been substantiated through investigation. The GSS and the SSPPS collect data on self-reported experiences of victimization, whether or not these incidents were reported to police.

    More specifically, the GSS and SSPPS collect data about Canadians living in all provinces and territories who are 15 years and older (people living in institutions including prisons are not included). The GSS asks respondents to identify any incidents of victimization they experienced within the previous 12 months, and the survey is repeated on a five-year cycle. The SSPPS, first conducted in 2018, focuses on Canadians’ experiences of gender-based violence within the last 12 months, including unwanted sexual behaviors in public spaces, unwanted sexual behaviours at work, unwanted behaviours online, sexual assault, and intimate partner violence. The SSPPS also collects information on childhood maltreatment, and lifetime experience of sexual and physical assault (since age 15).

    It is possible that victimization is under-reported in all surveys as people may choose not to disclose these experiences for a variety of reasons. Notably, it has been estimated that only a very small proportion of sexual assaults are ever reported to police.Footnote 51

  • Victimization of Women

    Gender-based violence is violence directed at a person because of their gender, gender expression, gender identity or perceived gender. The term is often used to describe violence that is rooted in gender inequalities between women and men including the unequal distribution of power both at home and in public.

    Decades of research shows that women in Canada are at higher risk than men of experiencing certain types of violent victimization.Footnote 52 Women are substantially overrepresented among victims and survivors of sexual assault, forcible confinement, criminal harassment, and threatening and harassing phone calls. In contrast, men make up the majority of perpetrators of these crimes.Footnote 53 This distinction between victims and survivors and perpetrators of certain types of crimes is a hallmark of gender-based violence.

    In addition, women are more likely than men to be victimized by someone they know, such as an intimate partner, another family member or an acquaintance.Footnote 54 Although women are less likely than men to be victims of attempted murder or homicide, they make up the large majority of people killed by an intimate partner. These gender differences in relationship-to-perpetrator also signal gender differences in power that are characteristic of gender-based violence.

    Gender is one way through which to examine experiences of victimization. However, women make up a diverse group of people whose risk and resiliency is impacted by many other social factors. Certain groups of women are more likely to experience violent victimization. For example, research has shown that women with disabilities, women living in remote or rural communities, and those who are younger, Indigenous, or LGBTQ2 are at heightened risk of violent victimization. Other lived experiences, including a history of homelessness, poor mental health, and victimization during childhood are also related to higher likelihood of violent victimization.Footnote 55 Of note, the relationship between victimization and various risk factors is complex and often bi-directional, with the impact of violent victimization itself leading to conditions and behaviours related to higher risk of victimization. For example, women who are victimized may use substances as a coping method, which in turn places them at risk for further victimization.Footnote 56

    The following two subsections focus on women’s unique experiences of sexual assault and intimate partner violence.

    Sexual assault: a gendered crime

    Sexual assault is a gendered crime, with women making up the majority of victims and survivors and men making up the majority of perpetrators of these crimes.Footnote 57 In 2018, nearly one-in-three (30%) women and nearly one-in-ten (8%) men reported that they had been sexually assaulted at some point since the age of 15.Footnote 58 The relatively high prevalence of these experiences among women is related to the normalization of sexual violence against women in Canadian society. Sexual violence is normalized—made to seem commonplace and acceptable—by many behaviours and practices. This includes, for example, inappropriate sexual jokes, unwanted sexual attention (e.g., comments, gesture, body language), unwanted touching and the depiction of violence against women in the media. What’s more, the onus of avoiding sexual assault is often placed on women and girls themselves, rather than preventing men and boys from engaging in violent behaviour.Footnote 59 This contributes to feelings of responsibility that may prevent women from reporting sexual assault to the police. Furthermore, most sexual assaults against women are committed by someone they know, which can further complicate the decision whether or not to report.Footnote 60

    Data from the 2014 General Social Survey (GSS) on Canadians’ Safety (Victimization) and the 2018 Survey of Safety in Public and Private Spaces (SSPPS) show that very few incidents of sexual assault are reported to police. In the 2018 SSPPS, only 5% of women who had experienced sexual assault in the previous 12 months indicated that the incident had come to the attention of police.Footnote 61 This could be due to numerous factors such as: the internalization of shame, guilt, or stigma; fear of being blamed, re-victimized, dismissed, not believed, or treated disrespectfully; or the notion of the broader normalization of sexual violence in Canadian society.Footnote 62 Another factor may be victims’/survivors’ lower levels of confidence in the criminal justice system.Footnote 63

    Canada has some of the strongest sexual assault criminal legislation in the world,Footnote 64 but legislation alone cannot change public attitudes towards sexual violence that have persisted for centuries. These attitudes include gendered stereotyping about how a victim/survivor of sexual assault should behave, and how women should look and act to avoid sexual assault. In recent years, social media movements like #MeToo, #TimesUp! and #BeenRapedNeverReported have opened up the conversation around sexual assault and placed it in the public domain.Footnote 65 A supportive, trauma and violence-informed response to victims and survivors of sexual assault requires a system-wide approach, including in-depth training for all those working in the criminal justice system, greater public awareness and education, and appropriate, timely and accessible support services.

    Intimate partner violence perpetrated against women

    Women make-up approximately eight-in-ten victims and survivors of police-reported intimate-partner violence, which is defined as violence committed by a current or former spouse or dating partner.Footnote 66 However, many incidents of intimate-partner violence are not reported to police. Data collected through population-based surveys provide insight into the gendered nature of intimate partner violence. The 2014 General Social Survey (GSS) on Canadians’ Safety (Victimization) highlighted gender differences in the nature and extent of violence perpetrated by a current or former spouse, with women more likely to report having experienced chronic and severe violence.Footnote 67 Among those who experienced spousal violence, women were more likely than men to report a high frequency of incidents (i.e., six incidents or more). They also reported more incidents involving the most serious forms of physical and sexual violence, such as being sexually assaulted, beaten, choked, or threatened with a gun or a knife. Women were more likely to suffer from physical injuries, particularly those requiring medical attention,Footnote 68 and were more likely to report fearing for their lives during these incidents.

    Domestic violence does not necessarily cease when the relationship ends; in 2014, 41% of individuals who separated from their abuser suffered physical or sexual violence post-break-up.Footnote 69 Past research has in fact shown that women are more likely to be killed by an ex-partner than a current partner.Footnote 70 Although women represent a smaller proportion of homicide victims than men overall, women account for the large majority of victims of intimate partner homicide. Between 2008 and 2018, women accounted for about eight in ten victims of this crime in Canada. In 2018 nearly half of all female victims of homicide were killed by an intimate partner, compared with 7% of male homicide victims.Footnote 71

    In addition to the significant physical and emotional harm that intimate partner violence has on individuals and families, it is also financially costly to individuals, institutions and the Canadian economy. A Department of Justice study (2012) estimated the financial cost of spousal violence in Canada in 2009 at $7.4 billion over a one-year period. Of this amount, the criminal justice system bore 4.3% of the total economic impact (costing the system approximately $320.1 million). Victim costs, such as health care, mental health issues, productivity losses, other personal costs and intangible costs such as pain and suffering, accounted for 80.7% of the total economic impact ($6 billion). Third-party costs, such as social services, negative impact on children exposed to spousal violence, other government expenditures, made up 12.0% of the total economic impact ($889.9 million). In addition, the study found that spousal violence had cost employers an estimated $77.9 million annually.Footnote 72

  • Trauma- and Violence-informed Approach

    A trauma- and violence-informed approach recognizes the traumatic and long-term impacts of violence on victims and survivors, whether the violence is ongoing or in the past. Trauma- and violence-informed approaches work to increase safety, control and resilience, minimize harm to victims and survivors of violence and aid healing and justice.Footnote 73 According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, trauma- and violence-informed approaches are based on the following four principles:

    • understanding the concepts of trauma and violence, and their impacts on peoples’ lives and behaviours;
    • creating emotionally and physically safe environments;
    • fostering opportunities for choice, collaboration, and connection; and
    • providing a strengths-based and capacity-building approach to support client coping and resilience.Footnote 74

    As researchers better understand the impact of trauma on individuals, health and social service providers and criminal justice professionals are also better able to respond to, and provide support for, victims and survivors of crime.

For related studies and resources, please click on the link above.

Click on the link above to learn how to share your study on the unique rights, needs or experiences of women interacting with the criminal justice system.

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