North Grenville needs support services for victims of sexual violence

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It has been about a year since the #MeToo movement took social media by storm, with women around the world speaking out about their experiences of sexual harassment and assault. The hashtag has allowed many women to find the courage to speak out about the violence they suffered, in hopes that it will no longer be a social norm. The movement showed the sheer volume of women who have had to deal with unwanted comments, advances and sexual violence, both at home and in the workplace, and how many women have been afraid to speak about it.

Although this movement has definitely shed light on the issue, a lot more needs to be done to protect and help women who are put in these situations, especially in rural areas like North Grenville. From April 1 to July 31, 2018 alone, Victims Services of Leeds and Grenville saw 102 victims of sexual violence. While this number includes both sexes, the vast majority were female.

Shulamit Ber Levtov is a trauma counsellor who has based her business, Compassionate Support for Stressful Times, in Kemptville. She says North Grenville is somewhat of a desert when it comes to support for people who have been through sexual harassment or assault. Women (and men) who are looking for support have to travel to Brockville, Smiths Falls, or Ottawa for specialized support for their trauma.

Leeds Grenville Interval House (LGIH) in Brockville is the only women’s shelter in the county that helps women and children escape domestic violence. They have been operating at 140% capacity for over three years. Executive Director, Charlene Catchpole, says that one of their biggest challenges is the size of the area they service. LGIH has two sets of outreach staff who travel to the various communities in the county, providing education and services where needed. But the need for support is only growing, and their capacity to respond is limited. Charlene says that their 24/7 support line has seen an increase of 150 calls in the past year. “The MeToo movement has had an impact on the need for service,” she says, “Women are more apt to report, whether it is domestic or at work. There are also many more questions surrounding grey areas.”

One of Shulamit’s co-workers, Meagan Cumming, wants to play a role in bringing these much-needed services to North Grenville. Meagan is a registered psychotherapist who specializes in child abuse and sexual violence. As a survivor of sexual violence herself, she feels it is important for her to do her work as a therapist, but also be an advocate in the fight against sexual harassment and assault in the community. “We are socialized in a way that sexual violence is very common,” she says. “Education is a huge part of prevention.”

Last month, Meagan and Shulamit facilitated a support group for women who were affected by the Brett Kavanaugh hearings and his appointment as a Justice of the Supreme Court in the United States, despite numerous allegations of sexual assault. The free support group is something that Meagan would like to continue and eventually grow into a sexual assault support centre in Kemptville. “It has just been an idea in my head for so long,” she says. “I need to get out there and do something about it.”

Right now, Meagan is focused on making connections that will help her figure out what is needed in the community. Her vision is to create a centre that provides programming, support groups, counselling services, education, outreach and fundraising to provide the services to those who need it, free of charge. Meagan already runs a six-week yoga program for victims of sexual assault, which she hopes to weave into the offerings at the centre.

Meagan believes that education around topics like sex education, consent, and boundary setting are key when it comes to the prevention and treatment of sexual trauma, no matter how severe. Many instances of sexual harassment and assault go unreported because the victim is confused and embarrassed about what happened to them. It also often happens at the hands of someone they trust, which makes it all the more difficult to come to terms with.

Even if the victim gets up the courage to report the incident, Meagan points out that our judicial system is not set up to support people who have gone through a sexual trauma. “The victim is automatically assumed to be lying,” she says. “It can not only be re-traumatizing, but more traumatizing.” In her practice, Meagan ensures that her clients are in the driver’s seat, and she helps them make the right decision for them in terms of reporting the abuse. “The survivor gets to make their own choice,” she says. “It’s about making an informed decision about their needs going forward.”

Meagan hopes that having a sexual assault support centre in North Grenville will fill a much-needed gap and help victims of sexual harassment and assault feel less alone. “Shame is bred within silence,” she says. “A lot of healing would come in the support of the community.”

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