Statistics describing sexual violence are jaw dropping. As we have discussed in the past, the Canadian Women’s Foundation reports that only one third of Canadians understand what sexual consent means. Sixty-six percent of female victims of sexual assault are under age 24 and less than 10 percent of sexual assaults are reported to police.
A culture of silence is especially detrimental to Ontario’s youth and cannot continue.
We’ve already written about the need for standalone sexual harassment and assault policies on universities campuses in this a previous blog, which does a better job than I ever could at discussing their importance. Experiences of sexual violence on university campuses are highly complex; the microcosm that is a campus involves heightened (in the sense that they may attend class, live, and work together) and potentially more frequent interactions between survivors and perpetrators. There are also university codes of conduct and additional rules that supplement Canadian law. Effective procedures must be rooted in corresponding policies, so policy itself is a necessary first step in ensuring that survivors are treated with compassion and respect and ultimately moving towards a solution.
I bring up these previous posts to honour the work of those who have come before me and begin to build a supportive organizational narrative. We’re not trying to be the first on the scene, we’re simply trying to live by our principles and live up to higher expectations. It’s easy to get bogged down by the weight of the issue that is sexual violence, but that does not make it acceptable to shy away or disengage. An optimistic approach is needed to overcome these feelings; sometimes we need to stand up and say, “we can do this.”
In this vein, I would like to recognize the tremendous work that is currently being done in the sector. To name a few recent initiatives--and this barely scratches the surface--Sexual Assault Centre Hamilton Area (SACHA) trained student leaders on fallacious rape myths in anticipation of McMaster’s Welcome Week; Wilfrid Laurier University started their “Hawk Pact” workshop designed to get students talking about consent and sexual misconduct; and Westerns’ Sexual Violence and Prevention Education Committee hosted the “Consent & Compassion Forum” intended to encourage the university community to share their ideas and strategies for ending sexual violence. The great thing about these initiatives is the community co-operation required to pull them off: in all three examples we see student unions engaged in a productive partnership with their university administrations.
Student unions play a crucial role in developing campus culture and setting social expectations. They are at the forefront of advocacy and programming related to sexual harassment and assault, offering training on sexual violence, gender-based violence, sex-based harassment, bystander intervention, and health and protective services. They also offer peer-to-peer and survivor support services, recognizing the benefits of empathizing with friends and colleagues. Not only are student unions key resources in the fight to end sexual violence, but they tackle the issue head on every day.
This level of engagement must continue. The sector must recognize the value of student leaders in developing remedies that help survivors today by balancing proactive and preventative measures with robust and transparent responses.
At our last General Assembly, OUSA passed a policy statement that attempts to do just that, calling for a coordinated response from the province, universities, and students. We ask the provincial government to stand as a leader and ensure consistent, survivor-centric responses to sexual violence on post-secondary campuses. Students ask for better training, not just on policies and protocols, but also on bystander intervention, and gender-based and sexual violence across their institutions. Our students want more experts on their campuses: sexual violence educators and coordinators, external community partners, and skilled peer supporters.
When interacting with on-campus supports, survivors should be at the centre of these services. Their needs and choices should come before those of the university, regardless of their decision to pursue formal charges. However, universities must be forthright with their legal obligations--namely their duties to report and commitments to the safety of the campus community--and be transparent about the outcomes and procedures associated with their protocols. Students recognize that universities are also obligated to uphold the rights of those accused of perpetrating sexual violence, but believe that the safety concerns of the survivor should be given greater weight when determining accommodations for each party. Nonetheless, both parties should have access to a trained response team who will handle any appeals of institutional rulings. Above all else, all campuses must be safe places, free from sexual violence, for all students.
Administrators and staff who have worked in this area for decades say that the zeitgeist is different this time. There’s a new energy. A new sense of commitment. OUSA, and our student members, are committed to ending sexual violence and will stay the course. In the coming year, based on the statement we are releasing today, we will be writing a full fledged policy paper. We will also be working closely with the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities to design a campus climate survey for Ontario’s universities and colleges. Lastly, we will be advising the government on the public and ministerial reporting requirements of the Sexual Violence Action Plan Act.
OUSA’s policy statement, A Response to Sexual Violence within Post-secondary Education, is a crucial foundation for our future advocacy work. You can read it in our research centre, here.