December 9, 2011
Confronting Gender Based Violence on Campus
On Friday, November 25th I was able to attend a public address given by the Honorable Rona Ambrose, Minister of Public Works and Government Services, and Minister of State for the Status of Women Canada, at the University of Alberta’s Student’s Union Building. In front of a small crowd and a handful of camera crews, Minister Ambrose made an announcement calling for the elimination of gender based violence in Canadian post-secondary institutions. Accompanied by the Dean of Students and two members of the Student’s Union, she noted that this address, given on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, would mark the beginning of a worldwide campaign entitled “16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence”. This campaign, which was made possible by a partnership between the federal government and the University of Alberta, will allow post-secondary students to request funding for projects addressing violence against women. Noting that the Canadian government is taking targeted and effective action to end violence against women and girls, Minister Ambrose encouraged both male and female students to become active and involved in addressing the issue of gender based violence, and asked all Edmontonians to use the next 16 days to reflect on the widespread issue of violence against women.
Sitting in the crowd, watching both government and University representatives publicly acknowledge that gender based violence is a very real and serious issue, and one that they are committed to ending, I felt hopeful at the potential change that a campaign like this could bring about. I was also impressed both the government and the University recognize that students are often valuable and untapped sources of information when it comes to innovative ways to raise awareness and problem solve. I believe this campaign is an absolute necessity given rates of violence against women in post-secondary schools. College and university campuses, although often believed to be places of enlightenment and progressive thinking, are not immune to acts of ignorance, discrimination, and misogyny when it comes to the topic violence against women. To use one fairly high profile example- At Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario in the fall of 1989, the student council took up a campus wide campaign against sexual assault through the use of the “No means No” slogan. There was a tremendous amount of backlash from many of the male students, who took to displaying banners around campus with slogans such as “No means try harder”, “No means more beer”, and “No means kick her in the teeth”.
University and college campuses around the nation are often places of rape culture: places where women are told to be cautious and vigilant at night, where women are encouraged to walk with friends or chaperones, where women are urged to be responsible and cautious when drinking and partying, where the idea of “grey rape” is pervasive, and where sexual assault jokes and inappropriate rape analogies are acceptable. For all these reasons, it is absolutely necessary for campaigns to take up the issue of violence against women, in all its forms, on university and college campuses. I commend the Government and the University of Alberta for creating a campaign that has the potential to confront the issue of violence against women in some way. However, I believe it is not solely the responsibility of the government to raise awareness and create strategies to confront violence against women; when it comes to an issue of this magnitude, every single person in our community needs to be an active participant in discussions about gender based violence, discussions that take all people and all factors into consideration. Therefore, while it is crucial to be taking steps towards eliminating violence against women on campuses, we need to remember that gender based violence is a form of oppression that is not limited to post-secondary institutions. A very large demographic of the Canadian population cannot, or does not, attend college or university, and those with little access to the resources needed to attend college and university are often those in our community who are most vulnerable to physical and/or sexual violence. The same individuals often have little access to support and services should they experience an assault. A comprehensive discussion of this issue must include a critical examination of the various ways in which oppression is intersectional. Gender based violence cannot be studied in isolation from other types of oppression; racism, classcism, ethno-centrism, ableism, and Christian hegemony, to name a few, are intimately connected not only to each other, but to physical and sexual violence as well. In order to effectively discuss and confront this issue, our entire community needs to have a holistic understanding of the various factors that are at play.
I am hopeful and optimistic that the student proposals received by the government and the University address the complexity of this issue, and that the campaign announced by Minister Ambrose and the University of Alberta is successful in confronting violence against women on campus. I also hope that its impacts are not limited to the University community, and that it can serve as a catalyst for social change by creating a dialogue around the issue of gender based violence, so that the broader Edmonton community can take up a discussion of violence against women as it exists both within, and outside of, post-secondary institutions.
By Nikki Bernier