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Rehtaeh Parsons tragedy highlights 'everyday violence' against girls

Rehtaeh Parsons tragedy highlights 'everyday violence' against girls

 MONTREAL - The news of Rehtaeh Parsons’s alleged rape and eventual suicide in Nova Scotia has been called tragic, shameful and sickening.

The truth is that Parsons’s story is yet another example of violence against girls, an ongoing crisis we too often ignore.

Sadly, for those of us working in the field of violence prevention, Rehtaeh’s story only reinforces a fact we have known for years: girls experience violence on a daily basis.

The teenage years of a girl like Rehtaeh should be about learning, growing and developing interests. Instead, growing up a girl in Canada is often overshadowed by dealing with sexual gestures, comments and a bombardment of pressures to look sexy and have sex.

It’s so common that most of us, even girls, fail to realize it is violence.

A leading Canadian researcher, Dr. Helen Berman, has said that girls are socialized to expect violence to the extent that even victims overlook harassment. This type of “everyday violence” begins at a shockingly young age, she wrote in one study.

A survey by Quebec’s provincial statistical institute found that an astonishing 43 per cent of girls aged 16 who had dated a boy in the last year had been victims of dating violence. One-fifth of the girls in the study reported being physically abused by their boyfriends.

A 2010 study by a family-violence research centre in New Brunswick found that a dating partner had physically or mentally abused nearly one out of every four girls studied.

These statistics make it clear that harassment with sexual overtones is a daily reality for girls in Canada.

Nonetheless, Rehtaeh’s story leaves us with an agonizing realization: Society’s attitudes toward girls have led at least some boys to believe it was socially acceptable not only to hurt this girl, but to boast about the act on social media.

These attitudes underlie representations of women in mainstream media — often as sexual objects — that send boys the message it’s okay to make sexual jokes or to do far worse.

Rehtaeh’s suicide is a reminder that a lack of support for young girls can have devastating results. Research has shown that girls are easily prone to feel shame and internalize negative thoughts. Hospitals are treating an increasing number of Canadian girls between the ages of 15 and 19 for self-injury. Suicide rates among girls have increased over the past 30 years.

Social stigma from peers doubles the pain of girls. Rehtaeh’s mother says her daughter faced months of bullying after photos of the incident circulated online. Furthermore, law-enforcement investigations of cases like this too often appear to blame the victim for inviting sexual violence.

Many details of Rehtaeh’s case are still unknown, but it’s clear that something went terribly wrong. Why did the community and the justice system fail to support this girl and her family? Rehtaeh’s family needs answers, and so do all Canadians. Only by teaching boys what real strength means, and how to respect the girls in their lives, can we change the intergenerational cycle of violence.

This is also a call to action for the education and justice systems: it’s time to start taking girls seriously. From school boards to law enforcement and everyday interactions, we must ensure girls know they deserve respect, dignity and human rights.


First published in the Montreal Gazette on April 17th, 2013. Republished with permission.

See press review section for other publications of this text