Education as an Essential Component of Sexual Violence Prevention

In light of recent events, sexual violence prevention and response has been at the forefront of our national discussions, sparking the need for meaningful action and policy to address the persistence of sexual assault in our communities, workplaces, and schools. The conversation today is louder than ever, and rightly so, as it has been long overdue. The need to address and combat the pervasiveness of gender-based violence has been an ongoing challenge, and historically, student unions have played a critical role in addressing sexual violence on Canadian campuses. From efforts to combat rape culture and stigma to demanding adequate sexual violence policies on their campuses, students play a significant part in building a world free of sexual violence.

In Ontario, student unions and advocacy groups have pressed for significant policy changes at both the institutional and provincial level. While post-secondary institutions are responsible for ensuring campus safety for all students, they have often failed to do so. We know that students are amongst the most vulnerable segments of the population, and that female students have a higher risk of experiencing sexual violence than other students. We also know that females who are Indigenous, have a disability or are members of the LGBTQ+ community are at an even higher risk. Recent reports indicate that 1 in 5 female students will experience sexual assault during their studies and 2/3 of all sexual assaults will happen within the first 8 weeks of the academic year. In our province alone, there are several universities with policies that place gag orders on students, don’t provide clear timelines for the complaints process, or ensure protections for survivors from face-to-face encounters with their assailants.

In 2016, the Ontario government passed legislation mandating that all universities and colleges across the province have stand-alone sexual violence policies set in place by January 2017. These policies outline how post-secondary institutions will respond to sexual violence incidents and complaints on their campuses, outlining measures that will be implemented to protect survivors and how investigations will be conducted. Students and survivors need to feel that they have resources and supports available to them, and most importantly, that they can rely on evidence-based, survivor centric policies. Taking effective steps to combat sexual violence on campuses includes not only implementing comprehensive response policies, but also a commitment to education.

Sexual violence education and prevention training initiatives can include early-outreach programs for students transitioning to university, bystander intervention training, awareness campaigns, online training portals and other informative resources. Effective education and prevention programs address the systemic, racial, and gendered dimensions of sexual violence, what sexual violence is/can look like, tackle rape culture, teach consent, and dispel rape myths. They discuss power imbalances, privilege, and abuse, focus on respect, healthy relationships, inclusion and safety. Prevention programs also promote active bystander intervention training, preparing students to act when they witness inappropriate behaviour. Most importantly, good practices are based on anti-oppressive frameworks and are evidence-driven. Education plays a vital role in preventing sexual violence because it fundamentally challenges the norms, beliefs, and culture of sexual violence that remains embedded throughout our communities. Research conducted on effective education and prevention of sexual violence has emphasized a widespread approach, focusing on community-based initiatives. This means taking measures to ensure collective participation in training and education programs. When students and their institutions participate together, education and awareness increases on a broader level. Only by working together will we be able to shift this culture in our post-secondary institutions.

Recently, the University of Toronto announced the development of an online sexual violence education and prevention training portal, accessible to all students, staff, and faculty members, however, completion is not mandatory.  Efforts like this are important but if institutions are truly dedicated to eliminating sexual violence on their campuses, they need to prioritize the widespread dissemination of such programs in a way that reaches all students and respondents. This includes staff, faculty members, campus security, advisors, and other employees. For such efforts to be effective they should be ongoing and mandated. Without actionable goals we are denying the possibility of a safe educational environment for all students.

This month, the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development will launch the Student Voices on Sexual Violence Survey across all post-secondary institutions in Ontario. The aim of this survey is to provide the province, and public, with much-needed information pertaining to sexual violence incidents, beliefs, and attitudes on campuses. The hope is that this data will provide a basis for the development of best practices and guides, improving sexual violence policies and approaches on campuses, as well as build awareness. While it will take some time before the results of the survey are made available and our policy-makers begin their reviews, we must continue to urge our institutions to commit to education as an essential component of sexual violence prevention.