Trigger warning: This article contains graphic detail about sexual assault or domestic violence, depending on the topic.
The catcall came as Brynn Chleirich walked alone through an Ottawa grocery store parking lot. A stranger in his late 30s was leaning against a car, smoking and staring at her. "Hey sweetie, you look pretty badass," he leered, following up with lewd suggestions.
"This has to stop," Chleirich, a 41-year-old single mother replied, staring back at her harasser.
In an instant the man went from smiling to hurling unprintable slurs at Chleirich. He stubbed out his cigarette and started to walk past her. Then, he spun around without warning and drove his fist right into Chleirich's eye.
What stands out most about this story for us is hearing Chleirich say that being assaulted was less traumatic than having to tell her five children what happened.
As her attacker fled, Chleirich sat stunned and bleeding on the slushy pavement. A woman who had seen the assault rushed over to help. Had that woman not convinced her to file a report and offered a ride to the police station, Chleirich says she would likely have told people her injuries were from walking into a door, rather than see the pain it would cause her family when she told them the truth.
Sadly, such stories are all too common. Only 40 per cent of non-spousal violence against women, and 10 per cent of sexual assaults, are ever reported to authorities.
Reporting violence has become a hot topic once again with women testifying against media personality Jian Gomeshi, and charges facing Bill Cosby. But Chleirich's story highlights a critical but rarely discussed piece of the puzzle: the pain of opening up to loved ones about what one has endured.
In her 20 years of counselling assault survivors, Lynne Jenkins tells us she's met many women who didn't report attacks because, like Chleirich, they feared the heart-rending impact on, and reaction of, family and friends.
Some women fear their families will not believe them, or will blame them for provoking violence, says Jenkins, director of counselling at Toronto's Barbra Schlifer Clinic for female victims of violence. Other women want to protect their families--from emotional pain, and potential public shame.
Rape victims worry their partners will reject them, seeing their bodies as spoiled and unclean.
On the day of her terrible assault, Chleirich's nine-year-old twins were the first to come home and see their mom with a black eye. Her voice cracks remembering the fear and pain in their faces as they tried to make sense of what had happened. "Are there bad people in our neighbourhood, mommy?" one asked, terrified.
"I wasn't prepared for their questions," Chleirich says, nearly sobbing as she recalls the incident.
The reaction of her 16-year old son was worse. Chleirich had hoped for hugs and comfort. Instead he flew into a violent rage because someone had dared hurt his mother. Chleirich had to ask her 20-year-old adult son to come home and talk his brother out of hunting down the assailant.
Jenkins tells us she's seen the stress of assault tear entire families apart and ruin friendships. While most of Chleirich's family and friends have been supportive, one formerly close-knit circle of girlfriends accused her of simply seeking attention.
Chleirich's attacker was never caught, yet we are struck by how much she has gone through without ever having set foot on a witness stand.
Later this month when the judge delivers his verdict on Ghomeshi case, Canadians will undoubtedly vigorously debate the ruling. In the midst of that discussion, and whichever way the judge rules, we can't forget that female victims of assault are not just plaintiffs; they are our mothers, wives, sisters and daughters. The courage and pain they've endured even in telling their stories is beyond measure.
Brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger founded a platform for social change that includes the international charity, Free The Children, the social enterprise, Me to We, and the youth empowerment movement, We Day. Visit we.org for more information.
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