In Canada, sexual assault is the least likely violent crime to be reported to police, and the vast majority — 90 percent, according to Statistics Canada — are never reported.
Spotty access to rape kits is contributing to the problem: Where you live determines how easy it is to get one, how sensitively you’re treated during the process, and even whether the evidence gathered holds up in court.
Front-line workers tell VICE News that improving access to those kits — simple packages of tools used to collect evidence of sexual assault — could have a huge impact. Women, especially in British Columbia, are forced to drive hours down desolate stretches of highway to reach a hospital where the evidence can be collected.
“They turtle,” says Christine Baker, a health services manager in Squamish, BC, of women who hear they have to travel an hour down the highway in order to get a rape kit. “They crunch in and they say, ‘No, not going to do it.’”
But it’s not just the west coast. Front-line workers in BC, Ontario and Nova Scotia tell VICE News that if an ambulance isn’t available, or the victim has no other way to travel, they sometimes make the journey locked in the back of a cop car.
The problem, which victims’ advocates say has a “simple fix,” often comes down to whether a community’s hospital has a freezer that locks to secure the evidence, and whether its physicians are properly trained to administer rape kits. If not, the victim has to travel to a hospital that does have these services — sometimes hours away, if a program exists in their province at all.
In North America, recent court cases have exposed how poorly the criminal justice system deals with sexual assault. This spring in Canada, protesters chanted outside the two court cases of Jian Ghomeshi, a former radio star who was charged with sexually assaulting four women. He was, in the end, acquitted on a spate of charges, while other charges were withdrawn after he issued an apology to one of his accusers.
And in the US last month, it was the judge in the Stanford rape case who drew scrutiny when he sentenced convicted rapist and swim star Brock Allen Turner to only six months in prison, though the prosecutor had asked for six years.
Better access to rape kits is one piece of the larger justice system puzzle, and front-line workers in Canada lay the blame at the feet of provincial health authorities who they say could fund better access to rape kits — but choose not to.
British Columbia is one of the worst areas for rape kit access in Canada.