Kharoll-Ann Souffrant is a PhD candidate in social work at the University of Ottawa and the author of Le privilège de dénoncer (The Privilege of Denouncing).
In 2006, Tarana Burke started the #MeToo movement to raise awareness of sexual violence against Black women and girls in low-income neighbourhoods. Instead, in 2017, the hashtag became a tool for the Hollywood elite – most of them white – to out their powerful abusers.
The power of #“MeToo” was originally meant to reside in empathy with victims of sexual violence irrespective of race, gender or class. But our society still finds it difficult to empathize with Black victims of sexual violence in particular, and Black women in general.
Unfortunately, race-based data on the outcome of sexual violence cases is not systematically collected in Canada. The lack of data pertaining specifically to the needs of Black women and girls makes it difficult to address their needs. However, looking at what we do know, it’s fair to conclude that Black victims of sexual violence are still struggling to access justice, and we should explore methods outside of the normal system to deliver it.
Black victims of sexual violence rarely report the crime to the authorities for many reasons. As a Black survivor, social worker and sexual violence researcher, I can attest that this is the norm, not the exception. The lack of trust in the criminal-justice system and the re-victimization it creates for most Black survivors, as well as other racialized survivors, is often cited as a reason for not reporting.
Police may also be directly culpable for the crime: according to a 2015 Radio-Canada investigation, many Indigenous women in Val d’Or, Que., were allegedly sexually assaulted by officers. This raises the legitimate question of whether the criminal-justice system should be the first and primary avenue for survivors of sexual violence.
When a Black woman is told to report an assault, she may also face a Catch-22. If a Black man is involved, involving the police can be seen as a betrayal of the Black community, given the adverse history of police violence against it and its overrepresentation in prisons. In these situations, community solidarity rarely favours the survivor.
Because such dynamics silence Black women survivors, police reporting should not be presented as the sole or only valid option. Other avenues may include restorative- or transformative-justice processes that, if conducted with care and expertise, can offer survivors a greater sense of meaning and healing.
Restorative justice refers to a set of processes that seek to restore the relationship of both offender and victim to the community. These paradigms have emerged from the expertise of Black, racialized and Indigenous communities. Transformative justice goes a step further: It addresses the root causes of violence and harm, often based on political, social and economic inequalities.
These processes usually involve trained and qualified facilitators. They must also be voluntary by both parties to avoid re-traumatizing the victim. Several studies on restorative justice show that many victims are interested in these processes and often would have liked to be informed about the possibility of participating in them.
Recently, the Quebec government announced the creation of pilot projects for specialized domestic- and sexual-violence tribunals. These pilots result from a non-partisan effort by provincial MNAs to adapt the criminal-justice system to the needs of victims and survivors of violence. But if the Quebec government is moving in this direction, it is mainly because of the public testimonies made by women victims of sexual violence on social media. Without the multiple waves of survivors publicly coming forward across the province, there would have been no change at all in our institutions on this issue.
While we can applaud feminist activists and governments for enacting these kinds of legislative changes, the conversation will continue to fall short for Black women survivors if it focuses solely on reforming the criminal-justice system. We must include Black women and girls when redefining justice and accountability beyond criminalization and punishment.
Ultimately, this is about the right to choose how to seek and access justice. It is a choice that should never be made by an outside person or system, but rather by the individual who has experienced the violence firsthand. For a world where no one ever has to say #MeToo again, it truly takes all of us to make it a reality – and that must include Black women and girls.