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Gender-Based Violence at Post-Secondary Institutions

Published on 19/03/2021 by Sarah Hannaford

One in five women will experience sexual assault while attending a post-secondary institution. This number increases for women and gender diverse people who experience intersecting systems of oppression that are linked to their identity. Indigenous women are three times more likely to experience violence than non-Indigenous women. At least 1 in 5 transgender, genderqueer and non-conforming post-secondary students have experienced sexual assault.

These statistics are just a few of the many different intersectional experiences, all of which demonstrate the need for targeted support for survivors of gender-based violence at post-secondary institutions.

On January 22nd, 2021, the Joint Declaration for a Canada free of Gender-Based Violence was endorsed by the Federal, Provincial, and Territorial Ministers responsible for the Status of Women. It contains the common vision, principles, goals and pillars that will be used to construct a National Action Plan to End Gender-based Violence in Canada.

In order for this plan to meaningfully confront the landscape of gender-based violence, we need an expansive approach that includes targeted support for survivors at post-secondary institutions.

YWCA Canada’s Not Online. Not on Campus. Report is an important illustration of this need. In this post, I frame a few of the key recommendations from this report under three of the pillars outlined in the Joint Declaration. This will highlight how this perspective fits into the already formulated framework of the National Action Plan to End Gender-Based Violence. I will be writing from my own perspective as a post-secondary student, which is informed by my identity as a white cisgender woman.

PILLAR #1: Support for survivors and their families

Supporting survivors and their families means responding to what has happened and is happening already, and supporting survivors today.

This calls for students to have access to a diverse range of institutional supports, that meet the immediate needs of survivors within post-secondary institutions. It is important to note that these supports must include action against gender-based violence both on campus and online. Online violence, i.e. technology-facilitated sexual violence, refers to “…a range of criminal, civil, or otherwise harmful sexually aggressive and harassing behaviours that are perpetuated with the aid or use of communication technologies” (as quoted in the Not Online. Not on Campus. Report). Technology-facilitated violence carries with it the same harm as traditionally understood forms of sexual violence, and both must be included in supporting survivors at post-secondary institutions.

Moreover, when creating these supports, it is important to acknowledge the diversity and specific needs of different campuses and students. Due to an expansive range of histories, locations, cultures and student experiences that exist, there is not a one-size fits all answer to supporting survivors and their families. This calls for flexibility, and for the ability to adapt certain services and programming to best fit the specific needs of the institution or community. Some examples of this what these supports could look like are illustrated in the Not Online. Not on Campus. Report. These include appropriate and diverse counseling services that have enough capacity to support the number of students needing to access them, understanding academic accommodations, and residential supports.

In prioritizing the specific needs of each community, institutions will better be able to support survivors and their families.

PILLAR #2: Prevention

Just as supports are necessary, as needs arise, there is also an immediate need for proactive training and responses.

Proactive training provides individuals responding to student disclosures the ability to immediately support a survivor, and helps disrupt rape culture through questioning the systems upholding it. As noted above, this training needs to include conversations of technology facilitated abuse, so that these forms of violence are also being actively prevented.

A second preventive measure is the implementation of specific policies that aim to confront and deconstruct the existing institutional barriers within post-secondary institutions.

An example of these barriers are current policies with limited scopes that cause jurisdictional grey areas to arise. This is demonstrated by a Lethbridge student service employee in the Not Online. Not on Campus. Report, who asserts, “…the act of sexual violence has to physically happen on campus for it to meet our scope and jurisdiction, which you know, that’s not where sexual violence happens, I would say in about 99% of our cases” (p. 49). Due to these limited policies, post-secondary institutions are not being held accountable for any off-campus violence that occurs, even though spaces such as student housing districts and local student bars are frequented predominately by students. Additionally, these policies do not extend to cyber space, which is often unmonitored and unprotected for survivors.

This is just one example of the need of specific policies that provide clear understandings of who is responsible and will be held accountable for keeping students safe, in both physical and online spaces.

PILLAR 3: Social Infrastructure and Enabling Environment

In pursuing a plan to end gender-based violence at post-secondary institutions, it is necessary to recognize that the existing conditions in these institutions mirror the outside systems of oppression. Therefore, just as there is a need for policy that identifies proactive prevention measures, there is also a need for policy that is grounded in confronting and deconstructing the environments that enable the increased risk of certain populations.

An example of this would be to confront the increased risk of gender-based violence that international women and gender diverse students experience. The social infrastructure that fosters this increased risk includes the precariousness and lack of security that can be caused by higher tuition rates, xenophobia, racism, lack of culturally appropriate services, language barriers, etc. In order to support international women and gender diverse students, appropriate policies must be put in place to dismantle the enabling environmental factors that increase their risk.

Experiences such as these emphasize the need for pairing individual preventive measures with broader systemic change. As highlighted by the Not Online. Not on Campus. Report: “By developing intervention strategies that address the community and institutional levels of change in conjunction with individual-related sexual violence risk factors, innovative and more promising opportunities for addressing sexual violence on campuses are developed” (p.15).

A Canadian National Action Plan to End Gender-Based Violence must aim to confront all spaces where gender-based violence exists. As is emphasized in the Not Online. Not on Campus. Report, post-secondary campuses uphold and perpetuate conditions that foster gender-based violence. For this reason and many others, targeted support for survivors at post-secondary institutions needs to be included in the construction of this plan.

Sarah Hannaford is a practicum student with YWCA Canada. She is currently pursuing a Master’s in Social Justice and Community Engagement from Wilfrid Laurier University. If you want to connect with Sarah, she can be reached at sgl.hannaford@gmail.com.


YWCA Canada. (2020). Not Online. Not on Campus. Report. YWCA Canada. https://ywcacanada.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/Not-Online.-Not-On-Campus.-Report.pdf


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