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Campus sexual violence policies need to put survivors first

December 5, 2016 by Siobhán Saravanamuttu, Graduate Research Intern at YWCA Canada and MA Political Science Student at York University

November 25th marked the International Day of the Elimination of Violence Against Women and Girls, and the first of 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence. The Ontario government’s Bill 132, Sexual Violence and Harassment Action Plan, requires the province’s universities and colleges implement sexual violence response policies by January 1, 2017.

The Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) reports that one in five women experience sexual assault while attending a university or college. Young women are extremely likely to experience sexual violence, with nearly half of all sexual assaults in Canada reported by those aged 15 to 24. Risk of sexual violence is even higher for women with intersecting identities. Indigenous, racialized, queer, trans, and disabled women experience a disproportionately higher rate of sexual violence.

Understanding the scope of sexual assault, harassment, and violence experienced by students is difficult, as most incidents are never reported to police or post-secondary administrations. Survivors choose not to come forward for many reasons, quite often for fear of victim blaming or re-victimization through the legal or university tribunal process. University policies and disciplinary processes which require survivors to face their rapists and disclose details of their assaults to several members of the university community are extremely harmful to survivors. These approaches only serve to perpetuate feelings of shame for survivors, as well as a culture where perpetrators are protected and women are discouraged from speaking up.

Rape culture on Canadian campuses is real, and pervasive. The recent very public incidents at St. Mary’s, Dalhousie, University of Ottawa, UBC, and York confirm this. And these are just the stories that made it to the media. So many more, are never reported. For those of us who are students, we often have friends and acquaintances whose stories are never brought forward to officials. For many of us, it’s our own story.  Universities and colleges which refuse to acknowledge rape culture on their campuses for fear of damaging their reputations and enrollment firmly confirm their commitment to the bottom line over student safety. Not even considered, are the students who have to drop out, never complete, or transfer, because of their school’s inability to provide trauma-informed supports.

As universities and colleges across the province rush to implement new policies in time for the January 1st deadline, there is concern whether these measures have the capacity to create positive, substantive change for survivors of sexual violence on campus. Grassroots survivor-led activist groups across the province have been working diligently to call attention to the many gaps in university responses to sexual violence, which disproportionately impact survivors in devastating ways.

Post-secondary institutions must be ready to face the fact that rape culture invades all aspects of our society, including their campuses, and that coordinated measures must be taken to create a safe and equitable learning environment for all students. Universities and colleges need to build a response process which actively moves toward a rebalancing of rights, away from those which favour respondents and disproportionately cause harm to survivors. A recent Freedom of Information request revealed that over the past five years, only 8 cases of sexual violence have been adjudicated through York University’s tribunal process. On a campus of 53,000, this represents less than 0.002% of students – disproportionately lower than CFS’ estimated 20%. For students to begin reporting, these new policies must enact substantial change to both the complaints process and supports available for survivors.  Policies should be streamlined, understandable, and easily accessible for all members of campus communities. Complex administrative processes should not become barriers to access for survivors. Any policies which outline a formal process for complaints and disciplinary action must also be coordinated with comprehensive supports for survivors and prevention strategies.

Crucially, to demonstrate a real commitment to preventing campus sexual violence, universities and colleges need to implement procedures which recognize the uniqueness of gender-based violence from other acts of misconduct, and offer real, trauma-informed supports for survivors. Student groups across the province have indicated their commitment to working with universities to create a positive plan going forward. Rushing to implement a band-aid solution in time for
January 1st is not enough. Policies which co-opt feminist language without listening to survivors as experts will only serve to perpetuate harm already experienced every day on our university and college campuses.

Sexual violence on campus threatens not only the physical and mental health of survivors, but also their equitable access to education and ongoing academic achievements. Post-secondary institutions and their administrations have a government-mandated responsibility to protect and support students. It’s time for them to step up.

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