Addressing sexual violence is never easy. Sexual violence combines two topics—sex and violence—that even when addressed separately make many feel uncomfortable. The mere existence of the word “sex” in sexual violence results in many myths and stigmas. These myths often blind us from seeing sexual violence for what it is: violence that uses sexual acts as means for exerting power and control. The impact of sexual violence is often overwhelming and devastating, yet it can also facilitate growth and resilience.
So how do we address the destructive issue of sexual violence? Like everything else we do, we refer to it through our cultural context. Some people believe that “culture” is something that only belongs to people of different backgrounds than them, and will minimize culture to unfamiliar and “exotic” clothes, food or rituals. In fact, all of us have culture and most of us navigate through many cultures. Culture is an umbrella term for the norms, values, and customs that we use in our various social environments (e.g. workplace culture, community culture, and even hockey culture).
Though we all have culture, our cultures don’t have similar history or social status.
Some communities have been systematically oppressed by dominant cultures, like the Indigenous communities of this land, or the historical Canadian immigration policies that were discriminatory to some populations, including specific ethno-cultural communities. People still experience racism and discrimination in Canada to this day, on both the individual and systemic level.
When we work to address sexual violence with newcomer* communities, we are adding layers to an already complex subject. Sexual violence is a crime of power and control that has lasting impacts, but when someone is already positioned in a disadvantaged social location, that marginalization can reinforce the impacts. We cannot isolate experiences of sexual violence from people’s experiences of oppression and their intersectional identities. We have to consider the wider context. For newcomers, this context may include pre-immigration, migration and post-migration stressors and the negative impact that immigration and racism has on people’s health.
It’s important to remember that this complexity does not exist because specific cultures condone sexual violence; in fact, there is no culture where sexual violence is considered acceptable (besides rape culture) although some people may use their culture as an excuse for violence. We also need to remember the wide range, or diversity, of newcomer individuals in Canada. People who come to Canada from other countries are not a homogenous group; the only commonality among them is that the Canadian culture and legal system are new to them. So we cannot assume that individuals from the same communities hold similar values.
How you can help address sexual violence in newcomer communities
The first step in addressing sexual violence within or against newcomer communities is being aware of our own social location and what we are bringing—and lacking—when we interact with a given individual or community. This awareness of our personal cultures, privileges and oppressions will help us position ourselves in the right context that is needed in order to connect with others.
The second step is, like in any other human-services, to invest in building trustworthy and genuine relationships that are intentionally based on kindness and equity.
SACE has resource materials on how to support adults and children who are impacted by sexual violence. If you are supporting an adult newcomer who has experienced sexual violence, here are some more things to keep in mind:
- Speaking about these experiences can be very hard, even when there are no language and/or cultural differences. Follow the person’s hints on how they name their experiences; be mindful of their non-verbal communication and respect it.
- Ensure that your responses to disclosures match the unique needs of the person without assuming the person’s preferences for support. Safety, trust and healing might manifest differently to the person you are supporting. For example, some people will prefer receiving support from their cultural or religious community and some will choose accessing support from services that are distanced from their social circles.
- Remember: people are more than their experiences of violence; many newcomers are skilled and resilient individuals with rich life experience and their own support networks.
For service providers
- Your staff should reflect the diversity of Canadian society, including people of diverse ethno-cultural backgrounds and newcomers.
- Reflect on how your agency presents itself. For example, if the art and printed material do not represent diversity of cultures and identities it might make some people feel alienated. Be mindful that if the agency’s name and materials speak directly on violence and assault it can be a barrier for some newcomer people.
- Be receptive to incorporating cultural approaches to violence and healing that might be different from the agency’s main services. There is more than one way to frame and name experiences, more than one way to perceive relationships and power, and many ways to experience healing.
- See diversity as an opportunity for growth. We can perceive diversity as a challenge to offer services but we can also see it as an opportunity to be flexible, grow and learn new ways of understanding and healing.
Addressing sexual violence is never easy but the ability to humbly and truly connect with others helps all of us grow and support our healing as individuals and as a community.
*The term “newcomer” is general and refers to people who were not born in Canada.