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How Rehtaeh Parsons’ Story Is Helping Other Victims Speak Up About Sexual Assault

By Andrea Peterson  

"How Rehtaeh Parsons’ Story Is Helping Other Victims Speak Up About Sexual Assault"

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The Sexual Assault Centre in the town where Rehtaeh Parsons lived is requesting $200,000 in emergency funding to deal with the rush of incidents reported following the 17-year-old’s suicide. A Change.Org petition posted by the Avalon Sexual Assault Centre of Halifax says the organization lacked the appropriate resources to handle their caseload before the Canadian teen took her own life, and has now become entirely overwhelmed:

“Prior to the tragic suicide death of Rehtaeh Parson’s Avalon Centre did not have adequate resources to respond to the demand for counselling and educational services. Since this tragedy Avalon Centre has been overwhelmed with requests for help. People are in crisis and need our help and we need the government’s help.”

The Avalon Sexual Assault Centre of Halifax receives more than $600,000 in government funds, but has not received any core funding from the Halifax Regional Municipality since 1996. If received, emergency funding would go toward reinstating a legal support advocacy position, adding a new counselor and an education and communications specialist. There was a six-month wait list for victims seeking counseling before Parsons’ suicide, and it is unclear how much that wait time will increase with the new influx of reports.

After Parsons’ death earlier this spring, it soon became clear that an all-too-familiar rape culture narrative of victim-blaming was at play. Her mother blamed her descent into depression on an alleged gang-rape by four boys two years ago. Law enforcement dropped the initial investigation into the case after a year without making any charges. Meanwhile, images of the alleged assault spread across the community, leading to intense bullying from Rehtaeh’s peers. Her high school was aware of the investigation, but failed to probe the incident while she was alive and didn’t even acknowledge her death until days after the fact. And even now, after her death, some in the community continue to attack Parsons. A Facebook group called “Speak the Truth” formed to support the boys who allegedly committed the assault, and signs urging “stay strong and support the boys” have appeared all over Halifax — including on Parsons’ street.

Nevertheless, Parsons’ case has had one positive effect: across Canada, it is leading the issue of teen sexual abuse out of the dark. In addition to the increased caseload in Halifax, the Sexual Assault Crisis Centre of Essex County in Windsor also received increased reports of alleged assaults from young teens in the wake of Parsons’s suicide — likely due to increased willingness from victims to come forward rather than an increase in the actual number of incidents. Director Lydia Fiorini told CBC News that when other young victims of sexual abuse hear about other cases, it gives them courage to come forward because “they recognize that they’re not the only ones.”

Of course, they are not the only ones. From the Steubenville trial and the suicides of Parsons’ and California teen Audrie Pott to the unfolding situation at a Michigan high school, where administrators chose to prioritize the future of a star basketball player over the well-being of his alleged rape victims, recent new cycles have made it clear that young rape victims are far from alone despite the feelings of isolation that often accompany sexual assault.

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