A battered woman will confide in her hairdresser about male partner violence long before she will confide in a family member or turn to a professional for help. This finding led the Centre for Research & Education on Violence Against Women & Children (CREVAWC) at Western to launch a campaign a few years ago called Cut It Out, which teaches stylists how to recognize signs of abuse and how to help.
Because salon employees develop relationships with women they see regularly, they’re well positioned to identify behavioural changes. Wright Hair & Co. in London is one of many Ontario salons that have received training.
The campaign underscores CREVAWC’s mission to investigate, educate and prevent violence. Since its inception in 1992, the centre has undertaken research on violence in all its forms, from child abuse and trafficking to rape culture and drug-facilitated sexual assault.
“Students are a high-risk population for sexual assault,” said Gail Hutchinson, director of Western’s Student Development Centre (SDC) for almost 30 years. She’s a founding member of CREVAWC and sits on its advisory board. “For something that happens so much, we should be more concerned about it. It’s been very clear that attempted rape or rape has serious, serious effects on those who’ve experienced it.”
SDC’s Psychological Services provides counselling to victims of violence. That care is, in part, informed by CREVAWC’s research.
“They’ll work with us,” Hutchinson said. “They’ll train our staff and our counsellors about what they should know, how they should deal with issues of intimate violence, what are the risks, how should we handle them and what should we be looking for.”
A few years after the Montreal Massacre, in which a man killed 14 female engineering students, researchers from Western, Fanshawe College and the London Coordinating Committee to End Woman Abuse applied for a federal grant to establish the centre.
“It became apparent there was a lot more that needed to be learned about the issue,” said Anna-Lee Straatman, CREVAWC’s manager for four years.
Despite awareness, the problem persists. Sexual violence – defined as rape, sexual harassment, stalking, cyberstalking and sexual exploitation – is a “systemic social problem,” according to a May 2014 CREVAWC newsletter.
“If you look at campus numbers,” Hutchinson said, “it’s mind-boggling how many will go through this.”
One in four women will experience some form of sexual violence in her lifetime, according to Sexual Assault Centre London. And Hutchinson said SDC sees only the “tip of the iceberg” because a majority of women don’t report. An estimated 88 per cent go unreported, according to Police-Reported Crime Statistics in Canada, 2013.
The reason they don’t seek help is the perpetrator will most likely be someone they know, Hutchinson said. “They feel responsible or they feel embarrassed. Or if they do tell somebody, like a roommate, they don’t get a response that’s helpful.”
To ensure women get the support they need, CREVAWC disseminates its research to health-care workers, social workers, teachers and police officers. It forms partnerships with community organizations, such as the London Abused Women’s Centre, to exchange information on violence, Straatman said.
Getting people to talk about violence is the aim of CREVAWC’s various campaigns. Neighbours, Friends and Families teaches those closest to women how to intervene.
“We know that women who’ve been abused suffer the same sort of PTSD symptoms as soldiers,” said Nadine Wathen, a professor in the Faculty of Information & Media Studies. She researches family violence and also sits on CREVAWC’s advisory board.
And these symptoms, she said, don’t stay within the walls of the home. “It affects women and men when they go to work.”
CREVAWC’s Make It Our Business campaign has taken this message to Ontario workplaces.
Another way to understand the effect violence has on women is to hear them speak about it. CREVAWC provides video testimony on its website.
“It’s important not only for the women who’ve been through it,” Hutchinson said, “but it’s probably as important for the bystanders to take it seriously.”