Content note: this episode addresses sexual violence. Too Scared to Learn: Women, Violence, and Education by Jenny Horsman (2013) uncovers how violence negatively impacts a student’s ability to learn. It focusses on women’s literacy, but the broader lesson is clear. None of us can properly learn when we’re scared and targeted. This has huge implications for girls, women, and gender-diverse students in all schools, as well as huge implications for post-secondary environments like colleges and universities, where sexual violence is a particular problem.
It’s the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, a great time to talk about ending sexual violence on campus. Our first guest is Ziyana Kotadia, an advocate and writer in her final year of an Honours Specialization in Global Gender Studies and a Minor in Feminist, Queer and Critical Race Theory from Western University and Huron University College. She’s Chair of the Safe Campus Coalition and a contributor to the Our Campus, Our Safety Action Plan, a call for action from students all over Canada. Ziyana is passionate about poetry, performance, and politics and has a keen interest in exploring intersections among the worlds of academia, art, and advocacy. She was the 2021-2022 Vice-President University Affairs for Western’s University Students’ Council, one of the nation’s leading student organizations, where she championed gender equity projects and the voices of over 35,000 undergraduate and professional students as the Chief Advocate and Stakeholder Relations Manager to the university’s senior administration. Her most recent publications include her op-ed “Universities Need a Consent Awareness Week in Ontario” in the ‘Toronto Star’, her second-place winning poem “Heir to A Garden Heart” in ‘Symposium’, and her academic article “Poetry, Prayer, and Politics: An Autoethnographic Exploration of Womanhood in the Canadian Ugandan Khoja Ismaili Diaspora” in ‘Liberated Arts: A Journal for Undergraduate Research’.
Our second guest, Karen Campbell, Director of Community Initiatives & Policy at the Canadian Women’s Foundation. She speaks new research we did in collaboration with the McGill University iMPACTS initiative, documented in a report entitled: Social Media and Mobilizing Change for Community Impacts. It explores the connection between students, social media, and sexual assault on university and college campuses.
Students deserve to be free from sexual violence. They deserve everything they need to learn and thrive. And they’re taking action to make sure campuses and learning environments are safer.
I’m Andrea Gunraj at the Canadian Women’s Foundation.
Welcome to Alright, Now What?, a podcast from the Canadian Women’s Foundation. We put an intersectional feminist lens on stories that make you wonder “Why is this still happening?” We explore systemic roots and strategies for change that will move us closer to the goal of gender justice.
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I read a book called Too Scared to Learn: Women, Violence, and Education written by Jenny Horsman. It was a revelation to me. It uncovers the way that violence negatively impacts a student’s ability to take in information and improve their skills.
It focuses on women’s literacy, but the broader lesson is clear.
None of us can properly learn when we’re scared.
This has huge implications for girls, women, and gender diverse students in all schools in Canada who are at high risk of gender-based violence, like partner and family abuse and sexual assault. And it has huge implications for postsecondary environments where we know sexual violence is a particular problem. It’s stunning to me how much money, debt and energy we expect students to commit to a university, college, or trade school education while they’re at such high risk of abuse. This needs to change.
We’re in the 16 days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, a great time to talk about ending sexual violence on campus.
Our first guest is Ziyana Kotadia, an advocate and writer in her final year of university. She’s chair of the Safe Campus Coalition and a contributor to Our Campus, Our Safety Action Plan, published earlier this year. This plan is a call for actions from students all over Canada, because they rightfully know that sexual violence should never be part of the student experience.
I’m a student at Western University in my fifth year of an honour specialization in global gender studies. I love my program. I love the way it makes me think through how we can apply feminist theories. Definitely very passionate about what I study.
I kind of got into gender-based violence prevention work as a result of some of the leadership roles that I’ve held on campus. During the academic year, last year, so the 2021-2022 academic year, I was the Vice President, University Affairs for the University Students Council at Western. And it was a tremendous opportunity to get to know my community better, to figure out in a little bit more detail what change-making actually means. What the interplay between advocacy and activism in that space looks like. But last year it also meant responding to widespread allegations of gender-based violence and experiences that many people, kind of, came forward with. Which shocked a lot of people but for those of us who are at Western, felt very much like a light was being shone on something that’s been happening for a very long time and isn’t something new.
Responding to that violence, doing what I could to support survivors, but also figuring out how we translate students’ recommendations, student experiences into something that can be tangibly implemented was a lot of my learning last year. Since then, I’ve just been doing my best to follow through on this kind of advocacy work. Right now, I’m chair of the Safe Campus Coalition at Western University and hope to kind of continue dismantling the systems that produce gender-based violence in the future.
Those of us who talk a lot about gender-based violence seem to most often speak about intimate partner violence in long-term relationships. I think the kind of abuse that women and gender diverse students face can get downplayed or even forgotten, and the campus and school experience can get lost. Can you tell us more about this?
I think there’s a lot of truth to what you just shared about students being a demographic that aren’t typically thought of as being particularly vulnerable to this violence. But I do think that there’s a vulnerability that comes with, for a lot of students moving to a new city, moving to a residence, being in a community of people that are in some ways very similar to you and that you may share interests and passions with, but in a lot of ways are different from you. And all of a sudden there is this pressure to kind of interact with your peers in certain ways, to learn in certain ways, and a lot of that, kind of, comes during those first few weeks of school.
So, one of the key challenges, I would say is, and key things for folks to be thinking about when we’re trying to figure out how to intervene in this violence, is the red zone. And the red zone is the first 6 to 8 weeks of the fall semester, where the number of sexual assaults is heightened compared to other times of the year. And this wave of sexual violence really does deeply affect campus communities. We, you know, saw it firsthand at Western University last fall. But as you say this happens on campuses across the country. You know, it’s not unique to 1 campus across the country, but across the continent and universities, across the world as well. So, it’s a far bigger issue than you know, just being localized to one university. So, figuring out how we can, kind of, safely transition incoming students into the campus community environment is a huge challenge and is definitely a key area of focus in doing this work.
Another thing that I would highlight as being an issue or a challenge is making sure students have access to decision-making spaces, where institutions and governments are producing, you know, their reports of recommendations or their action plans for how to intervene in gender-based violence on campus. I see that often students are asked for input in ways that is more tokenizing of our experiences than it is meaningful. And I think ensuring that students input is core to the production of those recommendations or those action plans, you know, without also making it students burden, it’s a tough line to walk, but it’s an important aspect of doing this work as well.
Tell us about the Our Campus, Our Safety Action Plan released earlier this year.
So, this summer, as you may have seen, students from across the country came together to create an action plan with 10 different calls to action for the federal government, for provincial governments, and for post-secondary institutions as well. I was lucky enough to be involved in this process to facilitate some of the feedback gathering from different student leaders across the country. One thing that all of us sort of recognized was just how deeply embedded this issue is into the ways that our campuses operate. And just how vital it is to address this from the standpoint of students, understanding the way that students move through campus policies differently than other actors on campus might.
So, in terms of how we can actually do this in some tangible next steps, I can highlight one thing perhaps, that postsecondary institutions can do one thing, federal governments can do one thing, provincial governments can do, that, you know, we need to be thinking about how to intervene in spaces where this might be happening more frequently, or at times where this might be happening more frequently.
Making sure we have sustainable and well-funded campus education plans is huge. Prevention education is a really key component in supporting the change that needs to happen in order to prevent and address gender-based violence. But this work is often not prioritized as much as things like shifting complaints processes or ensuring that we support survivors, which are important, but it does take that holistic approach that takes into account education alongside policy interventions and survivor support. Ensuring that postsecondary institutions are implementing these education plans is huge.
I’d really like to see PSIs consider instating campus wide curricula, role specific training for people who are in different positions and differently have access to power on campus and education task forces in order to, kind of, come up with what this curricula looks like.
At the provincial level, data collection is a really important next step. Campus climate surveys are really valuable tools for us to understand the conditions and environment where the silence is occurring, the prevalence of this violence and where it’s occurring most, who is experiencing this the most, as well as the effectiveness of the different responses that are already in place. I say that this is something we need at the provincial level because it’s important for post-secondary institutions to be able to compare and understand what’s happening across the province and where they’re located in the broader landscape of this prevention work within the province.
So far, Quebec and Ontario are the only provinces that have actually conducted province wide campus sexual violence climate surveys. My campus is in Ontario so I can kind of speak to that provincial context. I know in 2018, these student voices on sexual violence survey collected that data and it’s been hugely valuable for student organizations in Ontario and for institutions in Ontario to better identify what needs to be done differently.
In terms of the federal level, one of the huge things that we can be doing is ensuring that this is prioritized in the national action plan against gender-based violence. It’s a really important policy tool that can be used to measure the efficacy of the different laws and policies that are aimed at improving gender equality.
So, just ensuring that in the implementation of this plan, we’re focusing on postsecondary campuses specifically is really important as we kind of talked about, this is a space where there isn’t always as much attention as there could be, so we’d really like to see that be a priority in the implementation process at a federal level.
What can we do to support safer campuses and an end to sexual assault and gender-based violence in post-secondary environments?
Well, the first thing that comes to mind is that regardless of whether or not you attend a post-secondary institution or whether that’s been an experience that a family member has had or someone else in your network, you can still be amplifying the calls to action that student groups are putting out there. There are so many different organizations, whether they be grassroots organizations or student government organizations, that are creating these recommendations for how postsecondary policies might need to change, or you know what education plans need to be put into place or how we can kind of shift institutional practices to better support students or be more intersectional.
I think a big thing is just uplifting those calls to action. They’re on social media. You can always, you know, repost there, but if you’re if you’re looking to support student groups more directly you can always reach out to them and ask, you know, what they need. Maybe they need some support at their protests or their rallies or just knowing that you’re enforcing the value of this kind of work to your network would be helpful.
Our second guest is my colleague Karen Campbell, director of Community Initiatives and Policy at the Canadian Women’s Foundation. She speaks to new research we did in collaboration with the McGill University Impacts Initiative documented in a report entitled Social Media and Mobilizing Change for Community Impacts. It explores the connection between students, social media and sexual assault on university and college campuses.
The research that we conducted on social media and sexual violence on campus is part of a multi-year multidisciplinary research project through McGill University. The full name of the project is Impacts Collaborations to Address Sexual Violence on Campus. And so, along with a number of academic and community partners, the goal of the project is to assess what’s happening at colleges and universities throughout Canada and to look at how sexual violence on campus can be addressed and ultimately prevented.
Our contribution to this research effort focused on social media and the ways that students are mobilizing for change at postsecondary institutions. So, we did a literature review and some key informant interviews with student activists and gender-based violence service providers that provide services to students. And we wanted to get a sense of how hashtag movements like #metoo have influenced campus culture and institutional responses to see how students are using technology to build movements and support survivors of sexual violence. And maybe I can also mention that our lead researcher on this was Jana Vigor and then the report is available as well on our website.
What do the findings reveal about social media and students looking for accountability and solutions to end sexual violence on campus?
I would say that, an important context piece is that in the years since #metoo, students have really built their awareness about consent, what sexual violence looks like, how power dynamics are at play in those relationships. So, when they come into college or university in their first year, they have pretty high expectations about how these institutions are going to prevent and respond to violent behaviour that happens while they’re students.
So, I guess one of the main observations that our participants shared is that sexual violence services on many campuses have had increases in service requests and the service providers that we interviewed attributed that to this improved sense among survivors that they are likely to be believed and so more are coming forward. And colleges and universities have begun to provide more and better resources for sexual violence and counselling services, and they’re investing in prevention campaigns. And we particularly see that around orientation weeks, around Frosh weeks that there’s lots of consent education pieces that are built into that. One of our key informants said that it’s sort of become a status quo for universities to at least do some kind of low-level consent awareness piece.
That same key informant also pointed out that social media has created space for students to call out their school administrators for inaction or for insufficient responses. And there’s a sense among some of the people that we talked to that their consent campaigns are a bit at a surface level, and that the system set up to support survivors or to demand accountability from perpetrators still need to be strengthened. And they said that this is particularly the case when the violence occurs between students when they’re off campus, and so there’s a bit of a gap in terms of where universities see or colleges see their accountability. Or when the perpetrators are professors or people occupying positions of power within the institution. So, there’s still quite a ways to go in terms of postsecondary institutions responding to the violence that occurs.
Another important learning from the research was that for many students, online and offline life are one and the same. There’s no sharp dividing line between those two worlds, and that young people seek out and find community and support online. One of our key informants told us that it’s common for survivors of sexual violence to disclose their experience of violence online, especially when institutional structures, like reporting the violence to school administration or to police, when that fails to meet their needs, or when those processes re-traumatize them, then they will sometimes turn to online spaces to talk about their experiences and find validation and community through that. And there’s a lot of power in telling your own story in your own way.
However, there is a concern among those who support students, that this is kind of referenced throughout the research as a double-edged sword. Because those kinds of online disclosures can open up survivors to the risk of more violence from trolls, from people calling their credibility into question. And in more extreme cases, opening them up to defamation lawsuits by the person or people that they accuse. So, our research really points to the need for education around digital safety and also the need for enhanced survivor-centered supports.
Alright now, what?
Ziyana underscores the importance of listening and amplifying what students are telling us they need to be safe and free from all forms of abuse. You can start by reading the full Our Campus, Our Safety Action Plan developed by a national collaboration of student unions and national organizations. Find it at couragetoact.ca.
And this holiday season we’re raising funds to support programs all over Canada that help women, girls and gender diverse people move out of violence, from shelters to counselling, to transitional housing and healthy relationship education. These grassroots programs and services are more important than ever with rising rates of gender-based violence, and your gift will have doubled the impact today. For every dollar you donate Green Shield Canada’s Room For Her program will make a matching donation until December 31st. Give now at canadianwomen.org.
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