Disclaimer: This article focuses on the lack of support from the Canadian government when dealing with sexual assault abroad. It could happen anywhere, so we have omitted the name of the country this incident took place in. It is also important to the survivor to note that while the people she interacted with dropped the ball, there are people who work around the world in consulates and embassies going above and beyond to provide support to Canadians abroad.
Sexual assault happens everywhere, in every country. It happens here, in Canada — and at alarming rates. I am hoping that by writing this people travelling to and from Canada can stay a little safer, have a little more peace of mind.
I am a survivor of sexual assault that occurred while I was travelling overseas for work and I make sense of it by using my lived experience to help make changes in global support for survivors. I am not the first and will not be the last, but my hope is that the next person will not have to struggle through the system the same way I did.
As a traveller, the first thing you should know is that the Government of Canada states that you should tell them if you are sexually assaulted overseas. They are clear that if this happens, you need to “report the assault immediately to the nearest Canadian government office abroad or contact our Emergency Water and Response Centre. Consular officials may be able to guide you through the process.”
I will tell you right now that if the circumstances you find yourself in are less than ideal (it is after work hours, or a holiday, etc.), the nearest Canadian government office will be closed and you will not receive assistance. The net result of calling the Emergency Watch and Response Centre, which is located in Ottawa, is that you will have a report created with your name and details. The person on the other end will ask you a series of questions, which in the immediate aftermath of trauma are incredibly inappropriate and jarring. I was not prepared for what I encountered on that call, so try to prepare yourself as much as you can for insensitive questions.
The person at the Emergency Watch and Response Centre assured us that they would let the local Canadian government office know that we were looking for support and that we would be at the consulate in the morning. We would come to learn later that this didn’t happen.
The next step was to go to the hospital. The country I was in only allows national hospitals to carry and use rape kits. This means that the hospitals I would normally go to as an expat could not help me. The hospital that could help me was, to put it nicely, run down. Showing up in the middle of the night for treatment made it seem a lot worse than it probably was, but I can still remember seeing bloody handprints on the walls when I left the following morning.
Depending on how quickly you get to the hospital, you could still be reeling from the effects of what you have just been through. I got there quite quickly and was still in shock; crying hysterically, shaking, and my lips were turning blue. The doctor recommended I be given an anti-anxiety medication and the person I was with agreed. I protested at first, but looking back, I am thankful they insisted I take it.
The stigma around sexual assault is in different stages of breaking down around the world. In a lot of countries, there is still a significant amount of work to be done. If you happen to be in one of these countries, the medical staff might not be as professional or considerate as you may need them to be. The OB I had assigned to my case asked me questions like, “Are you sure you didn’t just change your mind?” when she was filling in my incident report, and “Is your husband OK with you not giving him his children?” when I brought up having an IUD and needing an ultrasound to make sure it was still in place.
As a note, rape kits are not available at every hospital in Canada. Many survivors have reported needing to travel to other cities to access the services they need, and if that is the case in a country that boasts one of the best health-care systems in the world, imagine what it is like elsewhere.
After a night at the hospital, we arrived back at the consulate to discover that no one had been informed of the incident and had to play phone tag with them. We had to wait for someone with time to speak to us and were ushered into a transparent glass room, which wasn’t soundproof, right in the lobby to tell the consular officer what happened. This was one of the most dehumanizing parts of this ordeal because there was nothing but glass dividing us from the rest of the room. When I told them what had happened, they made no attempt to bring us somewhere more private or offer any comfort. Instead, they implied that it was my duty to prevent this person from reoffending and said, “You look tired, you should get some rest.”
Overall, there is a lot of room for improvement. For example, the Government of Canada’s website should have explicit guidelines for what to do if you are assaulted. There should be more sensitivity for the handling of these situations; people working in these roles, both at a consulate or embassy and at the Emergency Watch and Response Center, should receive the appropriate training to speak to people who are experiencing recent trauma. None of this is currently happening and I’m not saying it to intimidate you from seeking help, but rather to give you an idea of how hard it might be to get the support you might need in the aftermath of the trauma you have just lived through.
Overcoming the victim-blaming that got programmed into my head is a hard thing to do. I have played that day over and over in my head, consciously and subconsciously, and I have realized how much I blame myself. I tell myself things I would never say any of those things to someone else who was sharing their story with me, so why do I say them to myself? The truth is that it isn’t my fault that someone else decided they had the right to do this, and if it hadn’t been me, it could have been someone else.
One of the hardest things to cope with for anyone, no matter who they are, is hearing the things that people will say after you choose to tell them what happened to you. Some people will react sympathetically and others will offer unsolicited advice about what they would have done to avoid the situation. Every once in a while, you will even encounter someone who doesn’t believe you and questions the details of your story. Be prepared for that, because it can surprise you who some of these people can be. It can throw you through a loop and be damaging to your recovery. If you process like I do, talking about it will come naturally and it will be easy for you to realize who you can and can’t lean on. If you are selective in who you choose to share with, hearing some of these things can be really hurtful.
The phrase “time heals everything” was meaningless to me. I had always run headfirst at my issues and made myself be OK with them. I couldn’t do that with this particular issue. Between the side effects of the daily drugs and having to cut my trip short, the first month after the incident served as a constant reminder of what I just lived through. It took its toll on me. I felt like my life was over, like I had changed against my will, like I was never going to get control of my life or my body back. But after a year of therapy, leaning on my friends for support daily, and learning to be patient with my mind and body, I can tell you that time does help. It does heal. You won’t see the small successes, other people will, and one day out of the blue you might break down and realize that things did get better — you got better. And there isn’t a word or phrase I can use to adequately describe that. Relief? Contentment? Euphoria? It’s somewhere at the intersection of those three, layered in with peace and thankfulness.
What happened to me was traumatic, not because of where it happened, but because it happened. I have spent almost a year in therapy working on my mental health and I cannot wait to board a plane for my next trip.
Everyone’s lived experience is different, so for all the survivors who made it this far, I stand with you in solidarity.
Sexual violence happens all over the world, and unfortunately, we are not at a place where we can wake up one day and have it be a thing of the past. It is important to know the facts and be prepared in case something like this ever happens to you or someone you know.
- Globally, 35 per cent of women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence. This means that more than one in three women have experienced this, and that means that everyone knows someone who has in some way experienced physical and/or sexual violence.
- Less than 40 per cent of the women who experience violence seek help of any sort. https://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/ending-violence-against-women/facts-and-figures
- In Canada, only one in five sexual assaults were reported to the police in 2014.
- 30 per cent of women have experienced sexual assault since the age of 15 in Canada. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/85-002-x/2019001/article/00017-eng.htm
- Calls to helplines have increased five-fold in some countries as rates of reported intimate partner violence increase because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Restricted movement, social isolation, and economic insecurity are increasing women’s vulnerability to violence in the home around the world.
Information on pharmaceuticals
It is important to get medical attention as soon as possible after you experience an assault. There are certain medications you will be given as a precautionary measure. These measures are intended to prevent unwanted pregnancy and HIV contraction.
- Plan B: Consider travelling with a dose of this with you because it is not readily available in every country. It helps prevent fertilization and can be effective in stopping an unwanted pregnancy. Plan B is most effective if taken within the first 12 hours of the incident.
- Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP): These medications are for HIV prevention. You will have to take them once a day for a month. You will need to take a blood test after three and six months to ensure the infection was not transmitted. Many people don’t have side effects, but those that do can have very debilitating ones. PEP must be taken within 72 hours of possible exposure to HIV. These drugs are expensive if you buy them in Canada to take with you but consider having a couple doses of this with you as well especially if the country you are going to does not have them available, and they do have a timeframe in which they have to be taken.
Advice on prevention
This list of advice comes from security trainings for people who travel abroad for work and here are some of the most useful tips
- If you are moving somewhere for work or an exchange, change up your routine a little every day. Try to use different exits when leaving your residence in the morning and walking home a different way when you return. This makes it harder for people who might be trying to learn your patterns.
- If you plan on walking a lot, the safest thing to do is have a fanny pack on under your shirt. The next safest thing is to have a purse on just one shoulder on the side that is away from traffic. Try not to wear cross-body bags or backpacks as much as possible because if someone passing by on a motorcycle were to take these, they would drag you along with them.
- Dress to fit in. If you are travelling to a country where showing a lot of skin is frowned upon, don’t wear revealing clothing. A good way to do this is to purchase clothing while you’re in the country. It can often be cheaper, it’s likely to be climate appropriate, make a nice souvenir, and can help you draw less unwanted attention.
- Wear a ring on your ring finger if you really want to avoid the male gaze.
- Make sure you have data on your phone when possible — you never know when you will need it and it’s usually very cheap abroad.
- Keep emergency cash somewhere safe — not on your person. And only take out/carry the cash that you need and spread it out into a few different bunches on your person.
- Write down the phone number for the closest embassy or consulate should you need to contact them in a pinch.
- Register with the government; if there is an emergency while you are there, they will email you, and if something happens where you need to be evacuated, they will be able to account for you in these efforts.
- Carry true-size colour copies of your passport but unless absolutely necessary, don’t keep the original on you and instead keep it somewhere safe but accessible.
- Know where to access travel insurance information and have copies everywhere.
- Consider carrying a charged phone bank with you at all times.
- Learning a few words in the local language when you need help can make a big difference: yes, no, help, hurt, hospital, taxi, man, woman.
- If you can, have someone you know (and trust) with you if at all possible. If not, share your location on your phone consistently with someone.
- If at any time you choose to seek assistance from the police — do not, under any circumstance, go alone.