CORNER BROOK, N.L. - There’s a Rehtaeh Parsons in every community.
Her mom, Leah, wants to show every city, town and village there is hope and help for every victim of sexual assault, cyber abuse or mental torture.
Wednesday, she delivered that message loud and clear to Corner Brook as guest speaker of the Corner Brook Status of Women’s annual Bread and Roses dinner on International Women’s Day.
Rae, as Rehtaeh was called by her mom, was 15 when she said she was raped by four boys in Nova Scotia who took advantage of her while she was deeply intoxicated. To add insult to injury, a photograph of the assault was widely circulated and Rehtaeh was incessantly threatened and ridiculed for it for more than a year.
It only ended when Rehtaeh’s anguish drove her to take her own life 17 months after the rape.
“Whether she comes forward and gets the support she needs or whether she stays silent because she’s afraid she won’t get the support she needs, there’s one in every community,” Leah said of the prevalence of sexual violence and bullying among young people especially.
She said society needs to teach the younger generation in particular that things such as taking advantage of someone incapable of giving consent or cruelly circulating self esteem-crippling information simply can’t be tolerated.
“When we change our views as a society and make something socially unacceptable, it loses its power … That’s how we make change,” she said.
One thing she took note of during Rehtaeh’s ordeal was how teenage girls often tend to treat each other viciously. She said Rehtaeh’s so-called friends were nothing short of brutal towards her after the photograph and the mostly untrue stories about it began circulating.
“We have to find ways to empower young women to embrace each other because I know 100 per cent in my heart that, if Rehtaeh had the support of her female friends, I wouldn’t be here (speaking) today,” said Parsons.
[Leah Parsons on Rehtaeh's death three years later: 'She's a pretty powerful force. Still']
The theme of this year’s International Women’s Change is “Be Bold for Change” and that is something Leah Parsons knows all too well.
Sexually assaulted when she was 14, Parsons said it took her 10 years of despair to get her life back on a positive track. When she had Rehtaeh at age 28, she boldly went back to school to get her high school and university education.
Things were going well until Rehtaeh was raped. It was her daughter who then tried her best to be bold in coping with the aftermath.
“Rehtaeh never wanted to be silenced,” she said. “She fought very hard for 17 months to stay here and I knew what she was feeling because she shared those feelings with me.”
After Rehtaeh died, it was her mom who had to dig deep again, this time to brave the adversity and to continue to be her daughter’s voice. She felt suicidal thoughts creeping into her mind, but fought them off, knowing she had to show her love for Rehtaeh by continuing to speak out via social media and public speaking engagements like the one in Corner Brook.
[Leah Parsons joins voices calling for review of judge who said 'clearly a drunk can consent']
It’s been far from an easy path, but Parsons said she is inspired and supported by others every day to keep going.
“I’m OK to walk with my grief and hold hands with my grief, but that’s not who I am,” said Parsons.