On average, a sexual assault is committed in Canada every 17 minutes. Ninety per cent of the victims are women and half of them are younger than 17. Those sobering statistics, along with horrifying, high-profile sex crimes like those committed against Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French, have created a siege mentality among many women across Canada. But police and other personal-safety experts say that, by following some simple guidelines, women can protect themselves without drastically altering their lifestyles. “Women don’t need to be afraid,” says Const. Anne Drennan of the Vancouver police department, “but they do need to be aware.”
Be cautious of strangers, police advise. “It doesn’t matter what they look like—male, female, any age,” says Sgt. June Layden of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary, “there is always a potential of danger.” Police also recommend that women stick to well-travelled, well-lit public areas; avoid parking lots, and shortcuts through alleyways and playgrounds; try not to
walk alone at night, and assume a purposeful stride, with keys in hand. “Somebody who looks meek and mild and unprepared,” says Drennan, “is a walking target.” Women should also walk in the opposite direction of traffic, police say, so that if a motorist stops and asks for directions, it is easier to keep a safe distance away. Under no circumstances should a woman enter a stranger’s car, or even lean through a window.
In the case of an attack, police encourage women to stay as calm as possible. “Try to keep your wits about you,” says Drennan. “If you are confronted by someone and you don’t have the opportunity to run, assess the situation—the size of the attacker, his strength. If there are weapons involved, do not give them a reason to use it. It’s better to live to tell the story afterwards.” Police also recommend that women learn the art of trying to talk their way out of dangerous situations. “If you speak calmly and rationally, rather than in a confrontational or hysterical manner,” advises Drennan, “it may calm your assailant.”
If soothing doesn’t work, self-defence might.
In Canada, pepper spray can only be legally used against an animal. But there is no law against employing the adaptations of martial arts techniques often taught in women’s selfdefence courses. “Our program empowers women,” says Donna Christie, who teaches a course called Instincts at the Niagara Region Sexual Assault Centre. “We give them both verbal and physical skills.” But, according to police, it may not always be advisable for a woman to fight an attacker. “We have mixed feelings on self-defence courses,” says Drennan. “Anything that improves confidence is a good thing, but sometimes fighting back is the very worst thing to do. It is difficult when you are extremely upset and frightened, but you have to assess each situation individually.”
Personal alarms, safety whistles and other devices offer only limited protection. “Anything that emits a loud noise can frighten an attacker off,” says Drennan, “but if you have to reach into your purse or pocket to find it, chances are you are not going to get to it.” Police do recommend cellular phones, which can be used to call for help in certain situations. But many of these devices, Layden cautions, “are for use once you are in a position of confrontation. Unfortunately,” she adds, “sometimes after the fact is too late.”
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