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Danielle Aubry from the Calgary Communities Against Sexual Assault speaks at the launch of the 'I believe you' campaign in Calgary on Sept. 19, 2016.Bill Graveland/The Canadian Press

Even after 25 years of dealing with sexual assault victims, Danielle Aubry finds it difficult to get the words out.

"I'd like you to think for a moment about the profound isolation and loneliness that results from keeping a secret like sexual assault or sexual abuse. Think about a nine-year-old child experiencing..." Aubry stops for a moment, choking back tears.

"Experiencing sexual assault in their home by someone they love, who they trust and, because of so many things, they don't tell anyone."

Aubry, who is with the Calgary Communities Against Sexual Assault, was speaking Monday at the kickoff of the "I Believe You" campaign. It encourages victims of sexual assaults to share their experiences with friends, counsellors and police.

The #IBelieveYou campaign involves post-secondary institutions, students, military leaders and those who deal with sexual assault cases.

Aubry said the project is intended to send a collective shout-out to survivors of sexual assault. Survivors who get a compassionate response when they tell their stories are more likely to get help and seek justice, she suggested.

"Some people don't believe that you believe them," she said.

"If you imagine that some people carry this for 15 or 20 years — and they've convinced themselves and been told what they have to say is not valid and it's not real — to have someone say that to them for the first time is a huge relief."

Advocates say 97 per cent of sexual assaults are never reported. Aubry said campaigns such as #IBelieveYou could even encourage people to come forward about historic sexual assault cases.

The Canadian Forces is a campaign sponsor after launching its own program, Operation Honour, to end sexual assault and harassment in the military last year.

"It is certainly the same message, from the perspective of victim support and creating that climate where victims feel comfortable to come forward ... because this is a grossly under-reported activity and event," said Lt.-Col. Stephen Joudrey.

"The reality is this is a marathon and not a sprint, and this is going to take a generation."

Operation Honour was announced a year ago after a report into sexual misconduct in the Canadian military. The report by former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps found that sexual misconduct was endemic and tolerated by the highest levels of leadership within the military.

Shifrah Gadamsetti, president of the Students Association of Mount Royal University, said too many sexual assaults go unreported on campus, in communities and in cities.

"Chances are, we interact with a survivor in passing each and every day. And chances are, this person may not have had the chance to access support because of stigma, lack of resources or otherwise," she said.

"As students, it's important to us to be champions. It is no longer an option, but it is a necessity. For a survivor, believing them is everything."

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