Creating Safe Cities & Sexualized Violence in the Age of COVID-19

Vancouver Reopens & Sexual Assaults by Strangers Rise


July 1st saw the long awaited return of Vancouver’s nightlife after months of closures and restrictions. As BC moved into Step 3 of it’s Restart Plan the hospitality industry rejoiced having struggled to stay afloat through the pandemic. The reopening signals a return to another normal – one of unaddressed, rampant stranger-based assaults in Vancouver’s nightlife.


Vancouver Granville Strip at Night

Vancouver’s Granville Strip at Night (Photo Credit: Will Young,


BWSS Takes to The Streets! Safety Changes Everything.


In the last year, BWSS saw a growing number of women and girls in need of street-based interventions and resources and in May of this year launched their street-based Outreach Program ‘Safety Changes Everything’. The goal of the Safety Changes Everything Team is to be a visible presence within communities. Building relationships with women and girls to community-based resources, as well, and providing immediate crisis-interventions.



Responding to the to growing numbers of street-based, stranger-based assaults on the Granville Strip , BWSS teams are increasing their presence amongst Vancouver’s nightlife. The Safety Changes Everything Team, wants people to know if they are in distress and experiencing sexualized-violence or abuse to reach out. The Safety Changes Everything Team is available to provide immediate crisis response, emotional support, connect people to resources, advocacy and accompaniment to police, the hospital or medical services.

BWSS has been calling for action by the City of Vancouver, particularly in the Downtown Eastside and  Granville Entertainment District since early this year. Confirming what the Safety Changes Everything Team had been reporting, last week VPD released new figures which show a 129% increase in reported cases in the month of July alone – prompting them to relaunch the Hands Off! campaign.

Rarely though are sexual assaults reported to the police.


Constable Tania Visitin Press Conference

Vancouver police Const. Tania Visintin says even with the recent increase in reports, sexual assaults are vastly underreported. (CBC News)



City of Vancouver and the UN Safe City Initiative


Vancouver is one of six Canadian cities which is part of the UN Safe Cities and Public Spaces Initiative – a global initiative led by UN Women. The initiative aims to address gender-based and sexualized violence and harassment by focusing on the City’s policies, planning, programs and services and how they can be changed and applied to increase safety and build safer public spaces.

BWSS knows that gender-based, sexualized violence and physical expressions of violence are systemic issues. We know that prevalent normalization of violence and attitudes and beliefs rooted in racism, colonialism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia and ableism express themselves in ways that harmful and often deadly – particularly for Black, Indigenous, immigrant Women of Colour and 2SLGBTQQIA+ communities.

BWSS has been on the frontlines of work to create safe public spaces for decades – working in partnership with TransLink, bars & night clubs, and through our street-based community outreach team. As advocates for women and children experiencing gender-based, sexualized violence and harassment we routinely bring forward recommendations at all levels of government on policy and legislation which directly impacts Women’s safety in public spaces.

The City of Vancouver is now in the first phase, scoping study of the initiative. This involves a survey to gain a deeper understanding of gender-based violence and sexualized violence and harassment in public spaces.

The survey is open to anyone who has experienced or witnessed gender-based and sexualized violence or harassment in Vancouver. Examples include unwanted touching, cat-calling, being followed, or homophobic, transphobic, and racist harassment.

The survey is available in English, Mandarin, Tagalog, Vietnamese, Punjabi and Spanish


Some of the questions on the survey could bring back or remind you of upsetting or traumatic memories and trigger uncomfortable to intense emotions, sensations or other responses. If you are feeling triggered during the survey, feel free to stop at any point or take a break and come back to it.

BWSS is available through our 24-hour Crisis Line by phone 604-687-1867 for those requiring support and resources.

More details on this The City of Vancouver’s Safe Cities and Safe Public Spaces Initiative can be found at

A few ways to deal with coverage of the Jian Ghomeshi trial


As Jian Ghomeshi’s trial began Monday, February 1, 2016, the first of two sexual assault trials taking place in Toronto, we are beginning to see a rash of articles and think pieces about Ghomeshi’s career, about how the trial could be for the complainants, about sexual violence in Canada and rape culture, and about woman leading his defence team. The first complainant has courageously shared her testimony about the brutal violence she experienced by Ghomeshi. Her testimony is being shared in numerous articles and live blogs that are disclosing what is transpiring in the court room today.


These are the messages women and girls are told by society/media about how to avoid sexual violence. (image 1 of 3)

When it comes to sexual assault, the Canadian legal system doesn’t have a very good track record. The conviction rate for sexual assault is one of the very lowest of all the crimes in Canada. There are a lot of women out there who aren’t believed. There are a lot of disincentives to report.

Recent stats indicate that women’s reports of sexual violence to police or legal systems have plummeted in large part due to women giving up on the legal system’s ability to provide a measure of justice in sexual assault cases.

Let’s face it, the media isn’t much  better, doesn’t always do a good job reporting on violence against women in general and sexual violence specifically. A conference held recently in Toronto explored media reporting  this video explores how media perpetuates victim blaming troupes and this resource was written for journalists urging them to Use the Right Words when reporting on sexual violence

What to do as we are about to be inundated with media and social media reports of this trial?

“During the first go-around of the Ghomeshi media machine.  I felt unprepared. Like many others, I am bracing myself for what is sure at times to be a teeth-gritting, enraging, disappointing, frustrating, and heartbreaking process of awaiting updates, listening to analyses, and anticipating the trolls that are certain to emerge any time such a public case is discussed.” Lucia Lorenzi writes in

Here are a few options for self care and to deal with triggers:

  • Assess and make decisions about how much media you want to take in.
  • Set limits with people around you, friends, family, co-workers about talking about the trial.
  • Make decisions to stay from social media generally or specifically the comments section on news sites on social media sites.
  • Don’t assume everyone wants to discuss the trial. Give thought to what articles you share or if you share articles at all about the trial.
  • If you’re experiencing strong responses to media and/or social media reports you may be having a flashback or otherwise being triggered.
  • Remember, you can mute the #Ghomeshi tag if you need to. Take care of yourself.


(image 2 of 3)

What is a flashback?
A flashback is when memories of a past trauma feel as if they are taking place in the current moment. That means it’s possible to feel like the experience of sexual violence is happening all over again. During a flashback it can be difficult to connect with reality. It may even feel like the perpetrator is physically present.

Flashbacks may seem random at first. They can be triggered by fairly ordinary experiences connected with the senses, like the smell of someone’s odor or a particular tone of voice. It’s a normal response to this kind of trauma, and there are steps you can take to help manage the stress of a flashback.

What helps during a flashback?
If you realize that you are in the middle of a flashback, consider the following tips:

  • Tell yourself that you are having a flashback. Remind yourself that the actual event is over and that you survived.
  • Breathe.
  • Take slow, deep breaths by placing your hand on your stomach and taking deep breaths. You should see your hand move out with the inhalations, and watch it fall in with the exhalations.
  • When we panic, our body begins to take short, shallow breaths, and the decrease in oxygen can make you feel more panicked. Deep breathing is important because it increases the oxygen in your system and helps you move out of anxious state faster.
  • Return to the present by using the five senses.
    • Sight: Look around you. Make a list of the items in the room; count the colors or pieces of furniture around you. What do you see?
    • Smell: Breathe in a comforting scent, or focus on the smells around you. What do you smell?
    • Hearing: Listen to the noises around you, or turn on music. What do you hear?
    • Taste: Eat or drink something you enjoy. Focus on the flavor. What do you taste?
    • Touch: Hold something cold, like a piece of ice, or hot, like a mug of tea. What does it feel like?
  • Recognize what would make you feel safer.

Wrap yourself in a blanket, or go into a room by yourself and close the door. Do whatever it takes for you to feel secure.


(image 3 of 3)

How to prevent flashbacks?
You may be able to take steps to prevent future flashbacks by identifying warning signs and triggers:

  • Be aware of the warning signs.
    Flashbacks sometimes feel as though they come out of nowhere, but there are often early physical or emotional warning signs. These signs could include a change in mood, feeling pressure in your chest, or suddenly sweating. Becoming aware of the early signs of flashbacks may help you manage or prevent them.
  • Identify what experiences trigger your flashbacks.
    Flashbacks can be triggered by a sensory feeling, an emotional memory, a reminder of the event, or even an unrelated stressful experience. Identify the experiences that trigger your flashbacks. If possible, make a plan on how to avoid these triggers or how to cope if you encounter the trigger.

Where to get help?
There is a relief that comes with the end of a flashback, but that doesn’t mean it’s a one-time occurrence. Flashbacks can worsen over time if you don’t address them.

Here is a list of resources where help is available:

In British Columbia

In Canada

Lucia Lorenzi says it best:
“It is impossible tell what the outcome of the Ghomeshi trials might be. It is harder still to predict if and how these trials will achieve what so many promised they would: to create a “watershed” moment regarding sexual violence in Canada. I don’t know if Ghomeshi will be convicted. Knowing the absolute brokenness of the Canadian justice system when it comes to sexual assault cases, I am deeply skeptical of such an outcome. I don’t know if our conversations about sexual violence will change: but, if they do, it will certainly take more than the trials of one former Canadian media darling. Sexual violence is not unusual or exceptional. It is happening every day in Canada. Most perpetrators will never see a day in court. Most victims will never receive justice. I don’t know how to fix a broken system.

What I do know is that as Ghomeshi’s trials take place, we do need ways to approach these difficult conversations: to be mindful of ourselves, of others, and to make sure that talking about violence doesn’t become another form of violence in and of itself.”

Sexual Violence in Canada – An Equality Issue

by Rona Amiri, BWSS Violence Prevention Co-ordinator

Violence against women continues to be a barrier preventing girls and women from living healthy, happy lives. Women who experience sexual violence in their homes, communities, workplaces and on campuses have to suffer the long-term health effects both emotionally and physically.

sexual violence on campussexual violence on campus
While the majority of incidents of sexual violence go unreported we do know nine out of ten of sexual assaults reported to the police are by women[1] and in almost all cases the perpetrators are male[2]. Contrary to popular belief, in most cases the perpetrator is someone who is known as either an acquaintance or friend of the victim not a stranger. One in five reported cases of sexual assault occurs in an intimate relationship[3]. Moreover, being young and female is a risk factor for sexual assault. Young women (15-24) experiences the highest rates of sexual violence, almost double the rate of sexual violence against women aged 25-34. Young women also have the highest rates of being stalked –usually by someone they know (two-thirds of cases)[4]. Date rape is the most underreported crime in Canada and most survivors are young women between the ages of 16 to 24[5].

Sexual Violence in Canada

Sexual violence on university campuses

Secondary institutions should be safe places where people of all genders are able to learn, grow and engage in the community. Unfortunately, the reality is that Universities and Colleges are places where women face sexual violence. Most sexual violence occurs in the first 8 weeks of the semester[6]. More than 80% of rapes that occur on college and university campuses are perpetrated by someone known to the victim[7]. Canadian Universities are not obligated to record or make public instances of sexual violence that are reported to them, therefore, the rates of sexual assaults that occur on campus are likely to be much higher than available statistics.

A campus survey at the University of Alberta showed 21% of students reported being sexually assaulted/harassed at one point in their life after the age of 14[8]. Of those students, 42% said it took place while being registered at University and over half reported that it happened during their first year of studies[9].

Surveys on male students have shown extremely problematic attitudes to sexual violence. One survey showed that 60% of Canadian college-aged males indicated that they would commit a sexual assault if they knew they would not get caught[10]. Another survey found that 20% of male students believe it is okay to force someone to have sex if they spent money on the date, they were drunk or stoned or if they had been dating for a long time[11]. These attitudes reveal a cultural which we live in where violence against women is considered acceptable by majority of men.


Information on the prevalence of sexual assault in Canada is limited. It is important to note that these statistics are based on formal police-reported cases of sexual and gender violence. It is estimate that 4 out of 5 women who are sexually assaulted do not report because of humiliation or fear of re-victimization. The underestimation of sexual violence highlights the extent of the problem with sexual violence and a culture that discourages girls and women from speaking up. Incidents of sexual violence are not reported to the police for several reasons. When women do come forward they are frequently blamed for being assaulted, they receive bad treatment or police fail to take evidence. Causing many women to feel humiliated, ashamed, unsafe, and unsupported or fear they will be re-victimized if they report sexual assault. Sexual violence carries a stigma and many girls and women are blamed for their assault. Even those individuals who work in the justice system add to a culture of shame. Police and judges have been reported making ‘victim-blaming’ comments such as that a woman was “asking for” sexual violence based on her clothing. This is unacceptable and creates a climate where girls and women do not feel comfortable seeking justice following a sexual assault.

stand with survivors

[1] Statistics Canada. Gender Differences in Police-reported Violent Crime in Canada, 2008. 2010

[2] Statistics Canada. Gender Differences in Police-reported Violent Crime in Canada, 2008. 2010

[3] Statistics Canada. Gender Differences in Police-reported Violent Crime in Canada, 2008. 2010

[4] Statistics Canada. Measuring violence against women: Statistical trends. 2013.

[5] Johnson. H. (2006). Measuring Violence against Women: Statistical Trends 2006. Statistics Canada catalogue no. 85-570-XWE. Ottawa. Retrieved February 16, 2007 from

[6] Department of Justice Canada. Factsheet on Dating Violence. 2003.

[7] Metropolitan Action Committee on Violence Against Women. York University Safety Audit. 2010.

[8] University of Alberta Sexual Assault Centre. A Survey of Unwanted Sexual Experience Among University of Alberta Students. 2001.

[9] University of Alberta Sexual Assault Centre. A Survey of Unwanted Sexual Experience Among University of Alberta Students . 2001.

[10] Lenskyj, Helen. An Analysis of Violence Against Women: A Manual for Educators and Administrators. 1992

[11] Johnson, H. Dangerous Domains: Violence against Women in Canada. 1996.


If you could do something to end violence against girls and women, wouldn’t you?