Gurpreet Kaur was just six years old the first time she remembers being sexually abused.
Her abuser was caught in the act, Kaur said, but the hope was that she was too young to retain the memory and would be able to simply move on.
Instead, the Surrey woman was sexually abused multiple times before she was 15 years old, she says.
After confiding in her parents about two of the incidents, Kaur decided to not tell them about the others because she was not getting the response nor the help she sought.
Kaur reported one of the assaults to police, which went nowhere as well, she said.
“I had to do video recordings with police, interviews which took hours and hours to do, getting all the evidence, getting my family involved, even though they didn’t want to be involved, and creating this whole thing to get a result that the case wouldn’t go anywhere.”
Making an accusation of sexual violence of any sort is difficult for survivors for many reasons, one being that their recollection can often seem spotty or contradictory in the first instance, said Laurel Weldon, distinguished professor of political science at Simon Fraser University.
This is why training for police officers has changed and continues to change, so that they have sensitivity and specialized training to handle the complex experience that a sexual violence victim or survivor goes through, she added.
As of May 31, 2021 it became mandatory for all RCMP officers in British Columbia to complete training on Trauma Informed Practices, which provides a foundation for working with victims/survivors based on the idea of ‘do no harm,’ Surrey RCMP Cpl. Vanessa Munn explained in an email to Peace Arch News.
They also now ensure that victims services workers reach out to the the vicitms as they come forward, whereas in the past, and in Kaur’s experience, they were provided with a phone number and had to reach out on their own for more help.
This change is part of an effort for officers to be more “proactive,” Munn added.
Resources for counselling should also be provided to the people who come forward, Weldon said.
Too much to handle alone
After failing to receive the support she needed, Kaur, now 29, created an Instagram page in 2019 called ‘The Kaur Movement’ to connect with other survivors and victims of abuse.
A common name for Sikh women, Kaur means princess, but is commonly translated to ‘lioness’ as a parallel to the Sikh name for men — Singh — which means lion.
“I created (the page) just for my own healing,” she said, adding that the growth the platform has received was unexpected, but shows how many people need support.
The Kaur Movement is a place for victims of sexual and physical violence to come together and talk to others who have had similar experiences. It began with people sending direct-messages to the account with their own stories of assault, but now people who are struggling in all types of ways – whether mentally, financially or emotionally – use it to contact Kaur.
“A lot of people have not healed, a lot of people have not shared their trauma with their family, so here they have a safe platform to reach out to, where they’re supported, where they’re believed and they get to see all of these supportive comments under their posts,” Kaur said.
With nearly 90,000 followers on Instagram, The Kaur Movement has led to the securing of volunteers around the world who offer their time to help people who contact the page. The group consists of counsellors, lawyers, social service workers and more.
She’s also started collecting donations, from those inclined to give, that go directly to helping victims leave abusive relationships or get off the streets.
Not long after the movement began, Kaur realized the degree to which her past was still affecting her, especially as word began to spread about what had happened to her. Wanting to escape a place where her abuse was discussed as if it were gossip, and family members who encouraged her to “get over it,” she decided to run away from home and seek refuge in Toronto.
Her family, discovering she was gone, inundated Kaur with phone calls. “Shocked and confused,” she said, they asked her, “this happened so many years ago, why is it affecting you now?”
The older generation from India were not educated about sexual abuse, Kaur said, and so her parents did not understand what she was going through.
Kaur remained in Toronto for a few months, but eventually returned to Surrey after taking the time she needed to heal.
Breaking the cycle
More recently, Kaur started The Singh Movement to encourage male victims of sexual and physical violence to come forward with their stories.
Kaur finds that alcoholism and drug abuse plague the Indian community, especially the men, she said.
Through conversations with male victims of sexual abuse, she learned that many choose to self-medicate because healthy solutions to psychological struggles are not advocated for in their community.
“They start drinking and smoking and doing drugs when they’re children. That’s not normal,” she said.
In Kaur’s own situation, like that of many Indian women she speaks with, families’ main concern with bringing sexual and physical abuse cases forward is how it will reflect on the family unit as a whole.
Most would rather keep the abuse hidden to lessen the gossip that will inevitably spread and the blame that will almost always land on the victim rather than the abuser, Kaur said.
Weldon acknowleges that fear is often well-founded.
“People can learn that it’s a mistake to come forward sometimes because the community is not really supportive sometimes,” she said.
Sexual assault crimes are under-reported throughout Canada, she added.
“They’re under-reported because of the social stigma, they’re under-reported because people don’t recognize that they themselves are victims of a crime, they’re under-reported because it feels like something private, people don’t want to necessarily involve law-enforcement, they just want to change their situation.”
Relationships between communities of colour and the justice system also needs to be improved, so that more people feel safe to report the crime to police officers, Weldon said.
Kaur sees that as a significant challenge.
“Nobody talks about rape, nobody talks about sexual abuse, physical abuse is kept very hush-hush. You just take it and solve it within the family. Nobody thinks about reporting anything to the cops and it’s not OK,” she said.
In her culture, marriage holds a lot of importance and female victims from her community who want to come forward are often asked, “who’s going to marry you then?” she added.
Making sure more people become survivors, instead of remaining simply victims, is Kaur’s ultimate goal.