Yesterday I had the opportunity to attend a meeting hosted by the Ontario Women’s Directorate (http://www.citizenship.gov.on.ca/owd/english/) on developing a plan in response to sexual violence on campuses in the province of Ontario. The meeting was a preliminary step in the information gathering process towards developing a comprehensive and diverse sexual violence action plan on the part of the Ontario government. It brought together experts in the field, community organizations, and stakeholder representatives to that end, including some of our partners — notably, the COU, OCUFA, and the MTCU. The meeting began with remarks from Hon. Laurel Broten, Minister Responsible for Women’s Issues and Minister of Children and Youth Services, in which she spoke about the importance of this project and laid out the consultative steps that will be taken in the coming months. We then proceeded into discussion, guided by general questions concerning what kinds of education strategies are most effective, what promising practices currently exist, and what would be the best approach to a comprehensive plan given Ontario’s fiscal situation. The discussion was long and detailed, with many different suggestions from all sides of the room on the best way to move forward with a public action plan. I will do my best to summarize some of the major points we touched on.
The first thing I should stress is the group’s insistence on how real and systemic of a problem this issue really is. Typical administrative estimates of sexual assault incidence tend to be under 10 individual cases per year, but these are based solely on numbers reported to campus security departments. Some of the faculty in the room had performed research that showed as many as 8% of women attending post-secondary education in a given year experience sexual harassment or assault. The group identified this discrepancy as a significant challenge moving forward, and urged that all future educational efforts include thorough research in order to identify the full breadth of the problem.
One recurring theme was that any public education initiative would need to meaningfully address the role men play in sexual violence on campuses in Ontario. Research shows that an overwhelming percentage of reported cases are perpetrated by against women by men that they know, and the group felt that it was important to teach men how they can speak to each other about the kinds attitudes that enable sexual harassment and assault against women. It was specifically brought up that most men have not heard the word ‘feminist’ before they get to post-secondary education, and if they have it is largely in a negative context. Possible methods of education included bystander training, in which men can learn about how they can react in group situations when sexist or violent utterances occur, and ally training, in which men can learn to pro-actively seek ways to speak out against violence against women.
In terms of implementation of these programs, the group stressed the necessity of a permanent staff member on each campus dedicated to these issues, who could take pressure off already overburdened human rights/equity offices. While we acknowledged that financial resources are hard to come by at this time, the group felt that without this position, a sustained sexual violence action plan would be nigh impossible. This staff member would work in conjunction with community groups to develop campus networks dedicated to education and awareness-raising around issues of sexual violence on campus. Once these networks are set up, a province-wide strategy would be much easier to implement centrally.
Another popular measure around the table was the development of a sexual violence education and awareness toolkit which would be ready-made for local adaptation. This package would be made available online and easily accessible. It would include information on how to run educational campaigns, research on campus violence, and provide lists of community resources for administrative use.
Finally, it was stressed that any approach would need to incorporate principles of anti-racism and anti-oppression. Without these kinds of understandings, any plan would lack the systemic perspective necessary to enact real, lasting change.
The Ontario Women’s Directorate will continue to hold these meetings throughout the summer, looking to ultimately enact something concrete this fall. This work is vital for creating an inclusive and safe space for women on our campuses, and am happy that OUSA will continue as a partner in this process.
Vice-President (University Affairs)
Alma Mater Society of Queen’s University